Enquirer Herald

Clover school bus drivers: ‘We are struggling’

Clover school bus drivers pleaded for pay raises to lift them out of the poverty zone as school board members weigh a $73 million budget that includes a dozen new teaching jobs.

“Many of us are really, really struggling,” said Jim Evans, one of about eight bus drivers who addressed the school board Monday during a public hearing on the 2015-16 budget.

The proposed budget, which the board is scheduled to vote on at its June 22 meeting, includes the maximum property tax increase for operating expenses under state law.

The proposed tax increase of 6 mills would raises property taxes on a typical business or second home that’s assessed at 6 percent of value by $36 for each $100,000 of assessed value.

The proposed operating tax increase would not affect property taxes for owner-occupied homes, under South Carolina’s Act 388, which replaced homeowner property taxes for school operations with a penny sales tax.

Evans and several other drivers who spoke to the board said they earn low wages.

Evans, who said most drivers don’t work more than 30 hours a week, also said bus drivers “deal with a lot.” For example, he said, they are regularly exposed to pollution from smoking diesel engines.

“We carry the most precious cargo you have on this Earth,” said Angelia Neely, who said she has been driving a Clover bus for three years. But Neely said, “we need some help financially.”

Neely, who said she earns around $10 an hour and pays for her own health insurance, said many drivers can earn more money in North Carolina. Because of that, she said, turnover is constant and drivers are frequently being trained at the school district’s expense.

Tina Blanton, who has driven a Clover school bus for a dozen years, said she earns $12.48 per hour. She said drivers are expected to keep their buses clean, but “we have to buy our own cleaning supplies.”

John Malpeli, who owns a mobile home park, complained about the constant school tax increases that fall on business owners. Malpeli also said he owns a lot on the lake and pays substantial property taxes on that.

“The well is running dry,” Malpeli said. “I don’t know how long the businesses can keep supporting a 6-mill increase. Businesses are running dry. We are the well.”

After the public hearing, board chairman Mack McCarter thanked the bus drivers and Malpeli for attending the hearing and said the board would consider their comments.

Superintendent Marc Sosne said the board can consider changes to the budget proposal during the next three weeks, before the June 22 vote. The new budget year begins July 1.

Ken Love, assistant superintendent for business services, told school board members the district doesn’t need a corresponding increase in the property tax for debt repayment for the coming year, even though it borrowed $67 million last year for its $99 million construction program.

However, Love said an increase in the tax for debt repayment may be needed in the next budget cycle, for the 2016-17 budget year. “We need to be prepared for next year,” he said.

He said the operating tax increase will generate about $1.3 million in revenue. However, he said most property assessments went down, so the district has a lower overall tax base.

He said most of the budget increases go toward salaries and fringe benefits, which cost $58.4 million. Other major costs include $2.5 million for utilities, $3.9 million for technology, $1.2 million for substitute teachers and $1.2 million for maintenance contracts.

Love said changes in the 2014-15 budget include $300,000 for six teachers and four teaching assistants to maintain the student-teacher ratio. He said the $300,000 won’t cover all 10 positions and benefits because some money will come from salary changes due to staff turnover.

Other new costs include $300,000 for up to five more teachers and benefits due to expected enrollment growth, $550,000 for technology costs, $40,000 for supplies and materials for new students and $15,000 for new football helmets.

Jennifer Becknell •  803-329-4077