By Matthew Decker
Nassau County bus drivers are in an uproar over the firing of Billy Connor and the reassignment of preferred bus routes from senior drivers to substitute drivers. Drivers feel they were unfairly bumped form their seniority-earned routes, which were then given to substitute drivers. The School District has supported this change to ensure coverage of all necessary routes. The School Board lamented over the bus drivers’ concerns but was not able to rectify the situation. Additionally, Community member Richard Lamken’s Public Records request for budget transfers was effectively stonewalled due to lack of information from the School District.
During the Nassau County School Board meeting on October 13th, multiple bus drivers expressed their frustrations over a new route bidding policy that the District implemented. Bus routes are bid on. Historically, drivers with more seniority received the preferred routes. The premier routes in Nassau County are in Hilliard. As driver, Mrs. Bennett, said, “Hilliard is heaven.” Under the direction of Brad Underhill, the Director of Transportation for the District, substitute bus drivers were brought in to fill gaps in route coverage. The bidding process was changed to accommodate the needs of the substitute drivers. Additionally, certain routes were eliminated. This resulted in several senior drivers being removed from their routes and being bumped to less desirable routes, while new substitute drivers were given the better routes.
Bus driver, Mrs. Slayton, pointed out that driving a bus has always been a “part-time job” as there is always waiting time during the day. During her down time, she was able to start a side business. Due to the new bidding process, she now has to run between Hilliard and Yulee, which significantly impacts her side business. She has been a driver since 1997 and has worked for Nassau since 2004. She lamented that there are already bus runs in Yulee that could pick up her one stop there.
Driver, Mrs. Connor, the lead driver for Nassau County for the last four years, has been working for the county since 1998. She stated that, “Drivers still love their jobs and are dedicated to it…but when is enough, enough?” Her Hilliard route was eliminated per Director Underhill’s command, and her husband Billy Connor, also a driver, was fired. She claims her husband had a perfect record and was not disciplined or warned prior to being terminated. She asked the School Board to, “Look into his [Director Underhill’s] actions and see what is going on here.” Other drivers, including her son in-law, who offered public comments during the meeting, supported Billy Connor and decried his termination. Director Underhill has been reached out to for comment on Billy Connor’s firing.
Several bus drivers for Nassau County professed their love for their jobs and the kids they care for each day. They all expressed concern over low morale among drivers. The chief concerns cited for the low morale were the change in route bidding and the termination of Billy Connor.
The School Board, under the direction of Mrs. Martin, has proposed a policy change to address the morale issue among bus drivers. They proposed a $3 per hour increase to any driver whose route had been changed as a result of the new bidding policy. This proposed change will have to go to The Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association for approval prior to being implemented. Bus driver, Mrs. Slayton, expressed that the additional $3 per hour was “nothing” and would be eaten up in gas costs due to her newly assigned route.
Community Member, Richard Lamken, grilled the School Board over the recent fulfillment of his Public Records request. He requested information and attachments regarding budget transfers. He specifically questioned budget inconsistencies including unexplained adjustments. The justifications for budget transfers provided to Mr. Lamken as part of his records request were inadequate. He claimed justifications included ambiguous statements such as, “funds moved to cover payroll” and “covers purchases.” He also received no attachments (agendas, budgets, etc.…) that were requested in his filing.
Chairwoman Martin disagreed with Mr. Lamken’s concerns over the budget transfers. She stated that a State Auditor is on campus almost all year long and, “not once has anyone said we don’t follow procedures or policies correctly.” She argued that the budget is thoroughly inspected by the State, is created using the State laws and guidance, and is fully correct.
Mr. Lamken also pointed out that there are a large number of teachers who are “out of field” this year. Out of field means that the teacher is not certified in the area in which they are teaching. Chairwoman Martin questioned this as well during the meeting. Nassau County School District Staff assured her that the “out-of-field” numbers were normal and were mainly due to difficulties in hiring teachers.
Additionally, during the meeting the Consent and Personnel Agendas were passed unanimously.
Matthew Decker is a Co-Founder of Citizens Journal Florida, having set up some of the technical and social media infrastructure. He also developed sourcing for some of its municipal government and business content. He is an Aerospace Engineer by trade. He has worked in NGO’s performing civic activities. He originally hails from Ventura, CA