Bus drivers hit hard by new budget proposal

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By Tom Wilmoth

    School bus drivers will be hit the hardest if the budget proposals discussed by the Bedford County School Board last Thursday are eventually approved.
    With the Virginia General Assembly having finally adopted a budget, the school board had more precise numbers to work with at its work session. That, coupled with the fact that several board members felt confident the board of supervisors wouldn’t approve all of the $5.7 million in additional local funding they were hoping for, meant quite a bit of cutting had to be done. In all more than $2 million had to be cut from the prior budget request forwarded to the supervisors.
    A big chunk of those cuts came from benefits previously provided to bus drivers, specifically affecting their healthcare insurance benefits.
    This year bus drivers, though they are part-time employees, are offered health insurance at the same rate as full-time school employees, at a rate of $10 per month. Under the proposal agreed upon last week, bus drivers will now pay from $94 to $170 a month for that same coverage.
    According to School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch, the school system will be receiving less money than originally budgeted from the state, because of the eventual budget version adopted by the General Assembly.
    Cuts agreed to by the board Thursday included:    • Taking away a proposed $800,000 employee compensation program, designed to give school employees a one-time bonus or 1 percent raise.
    • Eliminate funding for the school maintenance fund next year.
    • Implement the health insurance adjustment for the bus drivers.
    • Spread changes to the Virginia Retirement System contribution rates over a two-year period, instead of implementing it all in 2012-2013.
    School Board chairman Dave Vaden said his informal talks with supervisors led him to believe a raise or bonus for school employees would not be looked upon favorably by the board, but that they did want to know how much additional funding would be needed to keep employees’ salaries the same.
    City board member Mickey VanDerwerker said, however, that changing the amount bus drivers pay for their health insurance coverage means they are not “held harmless,” in other words they will receive less in their paychecks. She questioned whether the bus drivers, many who have the job specifically to receive those benefits, will continue to work for the school system next year. “I think we’re balancing (the budget) on their backs,” VanDerwerker said.
    But Vaden said the current system can’t remain. “It’s just not sustainable,” he said of offering full-time benefits to part-time employees.
    District 7 board member Kevin Willis agreed, adding “the wagons have to be circled around our full-time employees.” Willis stated that even at the part-time rate, the health insurance cost for the bus drivers is “a good deal.”
    Several board members, including Vice Chairman Julie Bennington questioned whether benefits should be taken from any employees. “It is not the right thing to do,” she said.
    But eventually, the board came to a consensus that the cut needed to be made, saving about $340,000.
    Dr. Schuch did say that employees affected by the change could be given the first option of applying for any positions within the school system that come open that they would be qualified to fill.
    District 4 board member Gary Hostutler brought up the option of closing small schools, but didn’t find any other board member willing to look at that further. “It’s the elephant in the room,” he argued. “(Small schools) are a very expensive thing to have. … We just can’t afford that luxury anymore.”
    In other action at the meeting the board also agreed to make Monday, April 30, a school holiday, since the school system didn’t utilize many of its weather-related make-up days this school year.