A group of disgruntled county school bus drivers has appealed to the Prince William School Board for higher wages and competitive benefits.

Mary Sines, a county bus driver for six years, told the School Board last week that Prince William should provide similar or better incentives than are available in nearby jurisdictions, especially because the county has had a shortage of drivers and difficulty retaining the most qualified drivers. Last year there were 26 vacancies and a 10 percent daily absentee rate among the county's estimated 463 regular drivers.

"I've been working here this long, and I only get paid 38 cents [an hour] more than the new drivers," Sines told the board. "Other counties recognize loyal and qualified drivers. We do not."

Sines pointed to Fairfax County where, although the pay scale is slightly less, new drivers are offered a $500 signing bonus and $500 for bringing in new recruits. The hourly wage for beginning drivers in Fairfax is $10.80, 34 cents shy of the $11.14 an hour that Prince William drivers earn in their 5 1/2-hour workdays.

Sines predicted dire consequences if the driver shortage continues, or if current employees continue to opt for better packages elsewhere. "We'll experience more accidents if there is more turnover. We need to keep the experienced ones," she said.

School Board member Charles J. Colgan III (Gainesville) said that improving working conditions for county drivers might solve the driver shortage. "They hold one of the most important jobs in the school district. With the shortage, kids weren't getting home until 5 p.m. some days," he said.

School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly told the board that he is "convinced [the problems] can be fixed."

"We need to look at why we're not able to keep the drivers once they're hired," he said. "We were hiring a lot but not keeping them."

About 12 bus drivers attended the School Board meeting, saying they hoped their presence would encourage board members to consider making recommendations and proposals to improve their working conditions and give them a competitive salary in the 2000-2001 school year.

The fiscal 2000 budget is still being written and won't be unveiled until next year.