The Board of Education had already included a $3 per day raise in the proposed 2018-19 budget, which would increase starting bus driver pay from $57 to $60 per day.
On July 12, the BOE voted to increase that amount by another $5, for an overall $8 per day raise for bus drivers from last year. The BOE also agreed to increase bus driver wages by $2.50 each of the next two years to get drivers to a $70-$90 per day pay range by 2020-21.
Drivers initially sought a pay increase of $75 minimum per day, topping out at $90 per day. Bus driver spokesman Darrell Lawson told the BOE several drivers weren’t coming back in 2018-19 if their pay didn’t improve.
"If they don't come up with a good wage here, they (drivers) are going to Kingsport, they're going to Greeneville, and they're going to other places to get a job because they're just barely making it," Lawson told the BOE at its July 12 meeting. "I know this is just a part-time job, but not everybody can drive a bus. All they're asking for is something that is fair. Kingsport starts them off at $72, Greeneville city starts them off at $72 and insurance, and we've already lost two drivers to that. You've had several bus drivers in here tonight who said they're going to hang it up."
The BOE approved the pay raises despite the fact that they will already be drawing on millions of dollars in savings to balance the budget.
The proposed 2018-19 general fund school budget is already projected to use $3.3 million in savings.
But the bus drivers are paid from the school system's separate transportation fund, which already had a projected deficit of $539,124, including the original proposed $3 raise. Adding another $5 is expected to increase the school transportation fund deficit for 2018-19 to $628,058.
Neither the 2018-19 Hawkins County budget nor the county school budget have been approved, although the new $8 raises were supposed to kick in with the start of the school year Monday.
"The challenge for us is trying to find resources in a very lean time when we're in a director search, we're drawing $3.3 million from our fund balance, and this is an ongoing expenditure," said board Chairman Bob Larkins. "We need to chip away at this (driver pay demand), and the recommendation is to do it over a three-year period. That's ambitious, but I think we need to find a way to make it work."
Board member Chris Christian noted, "It's going to cost, but what's the cost when our students don't show up at school?"
Larkins added, however, that if bus drivers threatened a walkout, as some alluded to at the meeting, the BOE would have no choice but to seek out a contractor to provide busing for the county.
"I don't want that to happen," he said. "I pray that doesn't happen. I think we can find a resolution to all this, but we just can't do it all in one day."
As of last week, Rolando Benavides, transportation director, was looking to fill eight school bus driver vacancies to drive the county’s 80 routes.
He said the vacant positions would be made up by drivers taking on extra students by dividing up vacant routes.