• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Bus driver shortage, pay increase discussed

The need for bus drivers will increase if Virtual Academy students transition back into the schools when the winter semester begins next calendar year, according to schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins. At Monday’s Woodford County Board of Education meeting, Hawkins told board members the district needs nine more bus drivers. That shortage could become problematic if more students need bus transportation because their parents want them to return to the classroom in January, he said. “And I don’t think it’s a question of if we add more (students), but when we add more,” board member Ambrose Wilson IV said. Currently, the pay rate for Woodford County’s bus drivers is lower than all but one surrounding school district, Hawkins said. He said if the district’s pay rate was increased by $1.25 an hour – costing about $60,000 initially – that would put Woodford ahead of all but one nearby district. Giving a pay raise to only one group of employees may cause morale issues, Hawkins said.  “… It’s a quandary that we’re in,” he said, “because … we do need to address salaries across the board, and we do need to address our (pay rate for) bus drivers in particular.” He described hiring bus drivers as an ongoing challenge that has been exacerbated by COVID-19 because many drivers are retirees, identified as a vulnerable age group. Hawkins said a higher wage may draw applicants who’ve lost a job because of the pandemic or attract drivers from other districts. When asked if he’d recommend a pay raise for bus drivers only, Hawkins told Wilson, “I do believe that it would be problematic if we did not do something for other employees as well.” Therefore, he said, “I would not recommend doing just one group by themselves.” At board member Sherri Springate’s request, an action item that would increase the pay of all employees by 1 percent was placed on the agenda of the regular meeting next Monday. Board Vice Chair Dani Bradley chaired Monday’s planning meeting. Chair Debby Edelen and Wilson both participated virtually, with Allison Richardson not in attendance. Virtual Academy Efforts are ongoing to improve the Virtual Academy at all levels, Chief Academic Officer Ryan Asher said. He said elementary students are receiving tangible resources like books and whiteboards to use at home, along with access to technology resources. Middle school students have a weekly “to-do list” and also have access to teachers during daily office hours for one-on-one support, Asher explained. He said students were also given the option to drop one or both exploration classes (band and chorus, for example) so they could reduce their workload. High school students in the Virtual Academy are getting more content area help for classes, including virtual tutoring services and in-person “homework help” after school, Asher said. Spanish-speaking families recently attended an event focused on helping students overcome language barriers with the support of an interpreter, he said. Bradley lauded ongoing efforts to improve supports for Virtual Academy students so they can get the help they need. On behalf of the board, she thanked virtual and in-person teachers for their hard work and making a commitment to providing additional help for students – a sentiment echoed by the board’s student-representative, WCHS senior Piper McCoun. Mental health and wellness services for students were also discussed during Asher’s instructional update. The district has partnerships with community agencies to provide counseling and therapy services, Asher said. However, Hawkins pointed out most of those services are being offered virtually – not in-person. “That is a concern that I have,” he explained, “… so I think that’s something that we’ll have to continue to look at.” Ventilation in schools The board took no action on a lower-cost option that, according to Matt Wade, of CMTA Engineering, has been shown in laboratory studies to reduce the ability of a virus to spread. This emerging bipolar ionization technology shows promise, but there’s no HVAC system that can prevent the spread of COVID-19, he explained. “There are things that you can do to help (reduce the spread),” Wade said, “but it’s really just a supplement to the other things that we’re already doing, like social distancing and wearing masks.” HVAC improvements to increase the amount of fresh air coming into a building or increasing filtration “have large, large cost impacts,” said Wade, “where as this is an option that is fairly cost-effective and within reach.” Hawkins said another consulting engineer with CMTA, Russ Crawford, told him that some hospitals are looking as bipolar ionization technology systems. It would cost about $650,000 to $700,000 to equip all school buildings with the units, he added. Bradley asked for additional information on the studies of bipolar ionization technology. With some school buildings in the district already equipped with newer HVAC systems that are more efficient at bringing in outside air, she suggested the district may want to look at installing the technology in schools with a greater need. Wade said it probably does make sense to install bipolar ionization units in older schools with HVAC systems that do not meet current codes and don’t bring in as much outside air. “Certainly, you can apply it in your most needed areas … if you want to go with a reduced-cost option,” he said. While schools with newer HVAC systems do provide a good, safe and healthy environment, those schools were built in a non-pandemic world, Wade said. Board attorney The board will be asked next Monday to authorize district administrators to begin the process of hiring a new board attorney to succeed Chenoweth Law Office, which is closing. A letter will be prepared by Hawkins to seek quotes for those services, he told the board. The Chenoweth Law Office has provided the district with legal services for many years, and Hawkins noted there are not many firms in Kentucky that offer legal services to school districts. The board agreed a decision about hiring a new attorney should be made after newly-elected board members are seated in January. Wilson, who did not seek re-election and will end his term in December, said that same philosophy should be followed on many decisions, including a salary increase for employees. “And you have to remember too,” Wilson continued, “we’ll have a new superintendent.” To which Hawkins responded, “You have said that now four times (at open meetings) and I have not made any announcement” about leaving the district when his contract ends at the end of June 2021.

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