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Officials fear insurance cuts may prompt exodus of Forsyth school bus drivers

By the numbers


* 314: Forsyth County Schools’ bus drivers

* 58: Bus drivers who work 30 hours or less per week

* $19,000: Average salary




* 282: Forsyth County Schools’ food service workers

* 124: Food service workers who work 30 hours of less per week

* $12,000: Average salary


Note: $11,770 is considered the poverty level for individual.

FORSYTH COUNTY — They’re chauffeurs and caretakers, chefs and custodians.

They ensure thousands of children get to school safely in the morning and home in the afternoon, transporting parents’ precious cargo through traffic before many get off work to do so themselves.

They feed hungry halls of students, tasked with leading healthy initiatives and serving some their only full meals of the day.

They also may soon see their state health insurance benefits taken away.

Gov. Nathan Deal recently proposed the state’s fiscal year 2016 budget. In it, he recommended eliminating State Health Benefit Plan coverage for non-certified staff — bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and secretarial employees — who work, on average, less than 30 hours per week.

Deal’s proposal to cut coverage to about 11,500 part-time employees was an effort to save the state $103 million next year.

Steve Weed drives a bus for Kelly Mill Elementary, Liberty Middle and West Forsyth High schools. The cut would not affect him because he works 32.5 hours a week.

Had it occurred during his first or second year in the district, however, Weed would have found himself in the same situation facing many of his co-workers. At age 61, he said, many employers “did not want me, so the insurance drew me to it.”

He’s not alone.

The average salary for a bus driver in Forsyth — one of the most affluent counties in Georgia — is $19,000, said Dan Jones, chief financial officer for Forsyth County Schools. Of the district’s 314 drivers, 58 would no longer be subsidized for health insurance costs under the governor’s proposal.

There are 282 food service workers, Jones said, excluding managers. A loss in benefits would affect 124 employees. Their average salary is $12,000.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2015 poverty level for an individual is $11,770.


Concerned for the consequences


Some employees have been with the district for 25 to 30 years, Jones said.

“These jobs are essential to keeping the school system going,” he said. “It’s not as easy as just increasing their hours, because you have to have a certain number of people in the cafeteria at a time.”

Garry Puetz, the district’s director of transportation, said he met with drivers who may be affected by the decision.

“Almost to a person, a main reason they came to be a bus driver was for the insurance benefits,” Puetz said. “Most everyone will have to consider at the very least leaving school bus driving if they’re not getting benefits.

“It’s a very important piece of their compensation. School bus driving in Georgia has been that way for three decades now.”

Puetz said a main concern to school administrations is an exodus of skilled drivers leaving the work force.

“Students will be at greater risk as they wait longer at bus stops, squeeze onto overcrowded buses and ride with less-qualified drivers,” according to a position paper on the governor’s recommendation, written by the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation, an organization aimed to protect students who ride buses. Puetz is the group’s president.

About 24,000 students ride a bus every day in Forsyth County, Puetz said. That’s more than half of the student population.

“That’s the big piece. There’s another 11,000 trips on field trips and athletic trips that we [would] struggle to be able to deliver,” he said.


“A legitimate fear”


While about 20 percent of Forsyth drivers would lose benefits, he said, more rural and southern areas of the state may see 80 to 100 percent of bus drivers affected.

State lawmakers have already started developing a solution.

Mike Dudgeon, state house representative for District 25 in south Forsyth, said an amendment was passed for the mid-year 2015 budget ordering the State Health Benefit Plan to do an audit and find out why it costs more than other neighboring states.

While Dudgeon sits on various educational reform committees, he is not working directly on this part of the budget. However, he said, “all of the [state] House and Senate members are involved to some extent because we’ve all heard a tremendous amount of pushback on this.”

Dudgeon, who previously served on Forsyth County’s school board, said he is in favor of a compromise that lets non-certified staff retain health care coverage but potentially asks school systems to pay the subsidies or charge higher premiums.

“I do understand why the governor [made the proposal] because no other part-time employee in the state gets insurance,” Dudgeon said. “But it’s different because so many times they do the job for the insurance benefits because their pay is very low.

“If you get rid of [benefits], there’s a legitimate fear [districts] can’t fill those jobs, or the people they may get may not be the people they want.”