Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia reached out an olive branch to bus drivers Tuesday, offering to meet with them face to face during the next two weeks.
The development came late in a school board meeting that lasted more than six hours and included a number of bus drivers reiterating their concerns, which include an aging fleet, low morale and low pay.
"I make $14.03 an hour, and I've been driving buses 19 years," said Tamara Hightower. "All I'm asking for is fairness – fairness around the board."
The district's plan for its embattled Transportation Department is expected to begin coming into focus in the coming days. On May 7, Elia will present to the board the findings of a transportation consultant. Seven days later, the superintendent will discuss the recommendations of several focus groups.
The meetings between Elia and employees will coincide with that same 14-day period.
"I think the important thing is that we value, we want to listen to their feedback and we want to come up with a plan that is going to work through the issues that we have in transportation," Elia said after the meeting.
A day earlier, several drivers called for the superintendent's resignation during a Town Hall-style meeting organized by board member April Griffin.
"I think we have to work on solutions and I think we have to move forward," she responded.
Some bus drivers came away from Tuesday's meeting with a different outlook.
"The last time, the superintendent didn't really serve us like she did this time. I think this time she took it in a step in the right direction," said Sheila Mingo, a veteran school bus driver.
Mingo, along with several other drivers, expressed concerns about the board discussing the possibility of hiring a private company to bus kids.
While the board pointed out this is only a consideration and far from inevitability, the superintendent made her opinion clear.
"I am not in favor of privatization. I wanted my employees to hear that," Elia said.
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