Bus issue angers parents

It has been a week of confusion and mixed emotions within the Barnwell 45 school district as parents, athletic teams and bus drivers have wrestled with the issue of transportation of students to athletic events.

The issue has left some parents of student athletes angry.

The Barnwell High track team missed a regional track meet March 18 at Edisto High School because there weren't available bus drivers to drive the student athletes to the event, said Madonna Toole, the parent of a Barnwell High track athlete.

"I'm very angry because this is hurting our kids. My child cried," she said. "I don't know what the big deal is about the bus drivers. It's a big mess."

Marcus Fields, the Barnwell 45 transportation director over the buses and drivers, said the conflict stems from a March 12 meeting that was held between the Barnwell High principal, Linda Zionkowski, Barnwell High athletic director Rosey Anderson, himself and John Bass, who is Fields' supervisor and the principal at Guinyard-Butler Middle School.

During the meeting, it was stated that if any qualified parents or coaches wanted to, they could drive the activity buses to transport athletic teams to games, Fields said.

This was not a decision that sat well with the bus drivers, who are paid to drive the extracurricular activity buses as well as the traditional yellow buses that take students to school, Fields said.

Fields said the bus drivers have not gone on strike but are still transporting children to school via the yellow buses and driving them to education-related events, he said.

However, athletic events are another matter, Fields said.

"Nobody is on strike and nobody is disgruntled. But if they want to take away some of the extracurricular activities, they can have it all," Fields said.

The district has 25 bus drivers and two substitutes. The drivers only work 32 hours a week driving the yellow buses, he said.

"Driving those extracurricular activities helps them out financially," he said.

"The drivers want to drive them (students) to the extracurricular activities, but they want to be treated decently and fairly," Fields said. "They don't feel like they are appreciated."

Fields said he wants the opportunity for the bus drivers to meet with the school board.

Fields is set to speak to the board during its March 26 meeting.

Toole said she was told if there were not available bus drivers, parents might have to drive their children.

If that becomes the situation, one problem is that not all parents can take time from jobs to drive their children to athletic events, she said.

As a self-employed hair stylist, Toole said she can make arrangements, but not all parents have that option, she said.

"It's not that they (parents) don't care, but they have to work," Toole said. "I thought it was the school's responsibility to take these children."

Daphene Walters has a daughter on the Barnwell High soccer team. One soccer mother drove the team activity bus to a March 19 soccer match in Hampton because that parent was certified to drive such a vehicle and there was not a district driver available, she said.

"We haven't had a problem yet," she said. "Had it not been for her we would have had a problem. That's the only way we have been able to go."

Likewise, soccer parent Keith Smith has also heard about the transportation troubles.

"On their last game (March 17), Tuesday night, we got a driver at the last minute. We were told to be prepared to drive to the sporting events," Smith said.

Dave Anastasia, the varsity soccer coach for Barnwell High, said he couldn't really comment on the situation when contacted by The People-Sentinel. He referred all further questions to Fields.

"I don't know the whole situation," he said.

Anastasia said the team has 14 games left in the regular season, which ends May 7.

Often student athletes have to be at a school an hour ahead of the game to warm up and get organized, Walters said.

This would make it hard for many working parents to drive their children to the games, she said.

"It's kind of hard for them to be taking off work at 2 p.m.," Walters said.

Under normal conditions, a student athlete can't even ride back from a game with a parent unless the school or coach has a note allowing that, prior to the game, she said.

Some coaches don't allow parents to transport their student athletes individually because the group transportation is part of the team-building effect, Walters said.

If parents are forced to drive their children, then it runs the risk of the team forfeiting a game if it can't get all its members to it, she said.

"We figured up that there are 11 junior varsity and varsity spring sports that this is affecting. It hurts the children No. 1 and it doesn't make Barnwell look very good," she said. "I can't think of a good enough reason for this to happen."

Fields said he didn't know of any games missed because of a lack of drivers.

Fields said he would see how this situation plays out between the bus drivers and the district.

Barnwell 45 Superintendent Roy Sapough said every effort will be made to have adequate bus drivers available for the district's teams.

"We will provide transportation for our students to their athletic events by whatever means necessary. If I can't find a local certified driver available, then we will seek whatever means necessary to find a driver, whether through a neighboring system, commercial drivers or other means," Sapough said.

"I think some parents are providing transportation today (March 20)," he said.

South Carolina has three different certifications for a person to drive either a yellow school bus, which is a state-owned vehicle or a locally-owned activity bus.

Initial requirements to drive a school bus include that a driver must not have had more than four points against his or her regular driver's license in the past year. Also, drivers must successfully complete the state education classroom training program; get a physical examination; pass the bus driving test and the road skills examination, according to state education data.

Certificate B relates to drivers of school activity buses. These drivers must also have a commercial driver's license and annually complete two hours of state education department approved training, according to state education department data.

"We've had a week of uncertainty with how we are getting kids to games," Sapough said. "I'm sorry there has been a week of confusion with the children suffering for it. We will do everything in our power to get the children to their games."

Sapough also said the district is looking for more drivers.

"Anyone who is interested in being a replacement bus driver should check with the transportation department. We will always need substitute drivers," he said.