Loudoun school leaders are working to fix two of the biggest complaints brought up by bus drivers: expensive health insurance plans and not enough hours.
The steadily growing school system is facing a severe bus driver shortage, with as many as 160 vacant positions out of a total of more than 700 needed to transport Loudoun students to and from school.
In an effort to attract and retain drivers, the Loudoun County School Board is scheduled tomorrow to approve a plan to make health insurance costs level for all employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
That reverses a board decision from 2014 when it adopted a policy requiring employees to work at least 21 hours a week to qualify for health care benefits. Premiums are charged on a sliding scale for employees who work between 21 and 30 hours.
Scrapping that model could save hundreds of dollars a year for the school system’s 157 employees who work between 20 and 24 hours a week. A 25-hour-a-week employee on an open access family plan is paying $829.76 per month. Under the plan expected to be approved, that monthly premium will drop to $350.46 per month.
“We’ve seen problems with recruiting and retention with bus drivers primarily because of the cost of health insurance premiums,” Director of Employee Benefits Gabrielle L. Cotman told the School Board at a Nov. 29 work session. “The impact of having a tiered premium rate is our benefits package is less competitive when compared to surrounding school divisions and it also causes our most low-wage earners to pay more for insurance.”
Plus, she said, it takes a lot of her team’s time to process the paperwork for the employees on the tiered insurance plans.
Leigh Burden, assistant superintendent of finance, estimates getting rid of the sliding scale model will cost the school system about $150,000 per year. If it is approved by the board tomorrow, the changes would go into effect next month.
David Palanzi, president of school employee advocate group Loudoun Education Association, sounded hopeful ahead of the School Board’s vote to adopt the new plan tomorrow. He said board members seem to be taking drivers’ concerns seriously.
“They are definitely moving in the right direction for transportation,” he said.
But it’s too soon to tell if the changes will get more drivers behind the wheel of the buses. Referring to the personnel report the School Board gets twice a month, Palanzi said, “They are treading water. It looks like for every one they hire, another leaves.”
In the past two years, 203 bus drivers, substitute drivers, trainers and attendants have left, according to the school system. In that time, 132 have been hired on.