Big pay raises for Ava bus drivers a source of contention for some teachers and staff
The Ava School Board this week voted to give bus drivers a 12 percent pay raise of about $70,000.
But that didn't sit well with a lot of teachers, staff and administrators whose pay raise averaged from 3.6 percent down to 1.3 percent.
"Inequity exists when you've got one group of people working part-time and another group, and it's the rest of the school employees, working many, many hours for much less money per hour," said Pat Henry, who spent 23 years as an Ava teacher and two terms as an Ava School Board member.
"In today's current economic uncertainty it is financially irresponsible to give such exuberant raises to the contracted bus route operators of the Ava R-1 School District and only small increases to teachers, non-certified staff and administration," current school board member Bart Ellison said in a written statement. "With current funding cuts and budget revenue uncertainty, every dollar is critical, and should be focused and spent on the education of our children."
The bus drivers are of course happy with the deal with their leader, Larry Vinson, pointing out, "This system is different and unique from other systems in the state."
That's because they are independent contractors, known as the Bus Route Owners Association, hired to oversee particular routes and their salaries are also used to pay expenses from upkeep, repairs and tires to insurance and other benefits.
Vinson, the President of the Ava Bus Route Owners Association, pointed to a research study by Transpar, a national route management group, on money allotments per bus route.
"It revealed that the routes here were 38.8 percent behind the state average," he said.
But the controversy runs deeper than that. It's complex and has b ongoing for years. According to Vinson things really started to get acrimonious when the district wanted to change the decades-old contractor system.
"Five years ago they came in and said you don't own nothing, you don't own a route, you just own a bus," Vinson said. "We had to rely on the legal system to straighten that area out."
Other things have contributed to the controversy over the years including an issue of falsifying mileage logs.
"There have been times, whether it was accidental or not, where the mileage has not been accurate," Henry said.
There was also legal action threatened from both sides over putting cameras on buses.
"They submitted to us an agreement that was totally unacceptable," Vinson said. "It didn't cover any liabilities for us. Being private contractors, and buses aren't the most secure thing in the world, we could get sued. Also they wanted to film us anywhere and everywhere we go. We get paid from the time the first student gets on to the last student gets off. The rest of that is my time and I should not be recorded while I'm on my private time.
The two sides ended up dropping their legal threats against each other and cameras will be installed.
But there are still those who contend the bus association is wielding too much power.
"The bus drivers have campaigned for the four people on the board who vote for them," said Bill Henry, Pat's husband. "I don't know what promises were made but it concerns the public when the bus drivers can get people on the board and they decide who gets hired and who gets fired."
"Do we try to help the people who we feel it's advantageous to the school and the district? Yes, we obviously do," Vinson replied. "Everybody else does."
"And the controversy just continues," Pat Henry said with a shrug. "And I think everybody wants that to be put aside and everybody concern ourselves with the education of our kids."