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School system part-timers wringing hands over possible benefit changes
Governors budget would cut health care for bus drivers, custodians, others
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Bus drivers are among the many part-time school employees who would lose benefits if Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed budget passes as is. Many bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other part-time school employees are retired from other jobs and have obtained these positions specifically to maintain benefits for themselves and other family members. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Elizabeth Beck enjoys being a school bus driver.

“I love my job,” Beck said. “I love the kids. It’s the least-paying job I’ve ever had, but I probably like it the best.”

But Beck is one of many part-time school district employees whose health insurance benefits may soon be taken away.

In his proposed fiscal year 2016 budget, Gov. Nathan Deal recommends eliminating State Health Benefit Plan coverage for noncertified staff including bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and more who work less than 30 hours per week.

The change could save the state more than $100 million a year.

A group of bus drivers gathered Thursday outside of White Sulphur Elementary School in Gainesville, waiting on students and talking about the future.

“People worry about it,” Beck said. “That’s about all they talk about.”

One driver said he thinks the state is making a “big mistake.” He said state officials don’t realize how many drivers they could lose, because many drivers take the job solely for the benefits.

“Personally, I came to work as a bus driver because they did have good benefits,” said Beck, who’s worked as a driver for the Hall County School District for four years. “And now that we may not have them ... well, nobody is getting any younger, but we still need insurance.”

Beck said currently, her husband is under her insurance. Beverly Chapman’s husband is also under her insurance, but she said she may retire before the state has a chance to leave them uninsured.

“I cannot give up the chance that I won’t be insured,” she said. “I’ve been driving for 12 years now for the specific reason of having insurance for myself and my husband and at one time my daughter.”

Chapman said it seems to her the state is looking at the budget and ways to save, but it isn’t looking at ways to save while caring for people like her.

She questioned why part-time employees working at the Capitol — such as pages — get to keep their insurance but she might not.

“I have thought about it, prayed about it, worried and concerned and fretted, and I think everyone standing out here is in the same boat I am,” she said.

The subject is on the minds of school officials as well. Gainesville City Schools’ Board of Education recently signed a letter for area legislators, outlining its members’ concerns regarding the budget.

Gainesville school board Chairwoman Delores Diaz voiced the board’s collective support of its part-time employees at its February work session.

“We cannot survive without them,” Diaz said. “They are a critical component of what we do and they support us, not only with their labor but in many other ways. They support our students and encourage them. I can’t imagine the loss we would experience if this proposal came to fruition.”

Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said he expects to see a good deal more conversation on the subject during the General Assembly before the budget is passed.

He said it’s important for people to keep in mind that there are a number of individuals — such as  Beck and Chapman — who work for the district only to get the necessary benefits. He also said many people don’t realize how much these “part-time” employees work.

“I think in terms of working less than 40 hours a week, bus drivers would be considered part-time, but it is a full-time commitment,” he said. “They have to be up early in the morning, finish their route and start again early afternoon. So even though they may only work 22-30 hours in a week, it certainly is a job that requires almost their full time.”

Schofield also said there may be the possibility to consolidate some positions in food services to turn some part-time jobs into full-time jobs, if necessary.

While the school board has no official plans if the budget should pass, Schofield said its members would be fair to the employees.

“Collectively, the school board knows just how valuable bus drivers, custodial workers, and classified or those we think of as noncertified are,” he said. “They are certainly a valuable part of the team and this school board has proven over the years that they are going to treat people fairly and do what’s right.”

Beck said she believes parents should be disappointed to see the budget pass, because it could mean losing the drivers who know and care about children.

Chapman agreed.

“In this situation, we really don’t know how the kids will get to school,” she said. “So many of us are in the same boat. We’ll have to do something different. We’ll have to.”

Beck said she doesn’t know what she’ll do if the budget passes as is. She said she tries to stay out of politics, so she doesn’t consider herself well-versed on the governor’s reason for cutting the budget.

Regardless, she’ll need health insurance one way or another.

“I may try to get insurance on the outside and keep driving,” Beck said. “I just don’t know. I am worried about it, but until it actually happens, I’m just going to wait and see. You can’t dwell on all the bad.”

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