When Jen Cobean decided to become a school bus driver eight years ago, the overriding factor was her eligibility for Loudoun County public schools health insurance and retirement benefits.
“The fact that you could be contracted at 3½ hours [a day] and get full benefits was definitely the biggest draw,” Cobean said. “At the time, my husband was a mechanic. They don’t get benefits, so this is our health insurance.”
Now, as the School Board considers ways to possibly cut as much as $16 million from its fiscal 2014 budget, Cobean and hundreds of other school employees who are contracted to work fewer than 30 hours a week face the possibility of losing some or all of their benefits.
In January, the School Board cut $16.7 million from the budget proposed by School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, with employee benefits among the main targets for reductions. The School Board cut an estimated $4 million from the budget by requiring employees to cover the cost difference between two health insurance plans if they chose the more expensive plan.
The board also approved changes in the benefits package that would affect only new hires. Members voted not to offer retirement or health insurance benefits to new employees who work fewer than 20 hours a week, and they adopted a tiered system requiring new employees who work fewer than 30 hours weekly to pay a greater share of their health insurance costs. Board members decided that the benefits of the 580 current employees who work from 17½ to 30 hours a week, most of whom are bus drivers and attendants, would be grandfathered.
School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg), who proposed several options for reducing the cost of employee benefits, said at the time that he recognized that health insurance was “an essential recruiting tool” for bus drivers and other employees who work fewer than six hours a day and that they should remain eligible for health insurance coverage.
But in a March 18 straw vote, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors indicated it would reduce funding for the school system by another $16 million. Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) singled out employee benefits as a potential area for further reductions.
“I applaud the School Board for trying, but we got a long ways to go, guys,” Buona said. “They grandfathered everybody on health. [I could] get a lot of money out of the system if I didn’t do that. They grandfathered everybody — everybody — on full-time employment definition. There’s $7.2 million I got out [of the budget], just like that.”
Fox disagreed. “I respect [Buona], but we’re not going to save nearly what he thinks we are by not grandfathering,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
He said that the School Board would probably have to take another look at the question of grandfathering current employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, at least with respect to Virginia Retirement System eligibility and tiered health insurance contributions.
“I wish I could say that this was off the table,” he said. “But when we’ve already cut $17 million and we have to cut $16 [million] more, there’s not a lot you can say is off the table.”
Cobean said that a reduction in benefits might force her to look for a full-time job.
Cobean, 36, of Ashburn, gets her three children up by 6 a.m. every school day and takes them to her bus an hour later, when she begins her runs. She estimated that she transports 75 to 80 children a day to Mill Run Elementary School, Eagle Ridge Middle School and Stone Bridge High School, all in Ashburn. She drops off her two oldest children at Mill Run. The youngest, who is 4, rides along on all her routes.
Cobean said she finishes her morning routes by 9 a.m. and then has to be back on the bus by 2 p.m. She finishes her afternoon routes about 4:30 p.m. She is contracted for 25 hours a week and supplements her income by working in the bus dispatch center several days a week, between her morning and afternoon shifts. The hours she works in dispatch do not count toward her benefits, she said.
“It just seems as if, for the higher-ups, they don’t really have any kind of idea what it is like in the real world,” she said. “Because they have a great income. The rest of us are just fighting to scrape by. You know, $17,000 a year — what’s that going to get you?”
Ervin Talkington, 60, of Sterling drove a school bus for about eight years before he had to stop because of health reasons. Now he works full time as a substitute school bus attendant, assisting special education students. Talkington said he enjoys working with different children and different bus drivers every day. The bus drivers are closely following the budget deliberations, he said.
“They definitely talk about it, and they think it’s wrong” that reduction in benefits are being considered, he said. “I personally think they’re going to lose a lot of drivers. And I also think it’s going to be harder for them to hire drivers.”
Cobean said she especially likes working with the children of her community and feels a great responsibility to keep them safe.
“The kids are awesome, and I have siblings now of kids that I had in the beginning,” she said. “It’s a major [responsibility], definitely. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. [People] think, ‘She’s just a bus driver, what’s the big deal?’ It’s still a long time to have these kids.
“Just fighting for hours, and the ability to provide for your family, is the worst part.”
Supervisors are scheduled to vote Wednesday on the fiscal 2014 budget, including funding for the school system.