John Ford

Siri Hedreen / The Outlook John Ford flips through the documents he’s collected over the years fighting school bus driver pay.

Tallapoosa County Schools will review school bus driver pay nearly one year after a grievance letter sent by bus driver John Ford, the school board confirmed in its latest work session.

The review comes after an appeal by Ford of superintendent Joe Windle’s response sent in March, in which Windle disputed Ford’s claims and said “no further action is planned at this time.”

After pandemic-related delays and several months of back-and-forth, Tallapoosa County Schools has agreed to set up a committee which will meet in January, director of student services and public relations Casey Davis said at last week’s school board work session. Personnel director Nancy Hatcher and transportation supervisor Len Carter will collect bus driver salary matrices from comparable school districts.

Ford addresses 10 grievances in his original Jan. 31 letter to the superintendent, extending well beyond a mere pay dispute.

Ford’s compensation dispute, however, boils down to two main issues — the first is that bus routes from Dadeville High School to the Edward Bell Career Technical Center are paid at a $50 flat rate as opposed to the regular Tallapoosa County bus driver salary matrix. Due to a requirement that bus drivers stay at the school between pick-up and drop-off, the Edward Bell bus route takes six and a half hours from Ford’s day, amounting to $7.69 an hour, Ford said.

Ford asks that Edward Bell bus drivers be paid according to the same pay matrix as the regular bus routes, which accounts for tenure and statewide pay raises.

“When I’m driving a bus to Edward Bell to and from Dadeville High School it’s no different from driving my regular route kids to Dadeville High or Dadeville Elementary,” Ford said. “It’s the same job.”

Ford’s second compensation issue concerns the way “regular routes” are paid according to the route’s distance. According to Ford, the salary difference between short and long route drivers — about $5,000, depending on tenure — is disproportionate to the amount of time added driving a long route.

“In Dadeville, whether you’re a long route driver or a medium route driver, our buses get back into the bus shop within 15 minutes of each other,” Ford said. “The distance you’re driving is not important. It’s how many students you have on the bus.”

Ford, who drives a medium-distance route — between 36 and 75 miles — is paid $12,059.77 a year. Long-route drivers — who cover over 75 miles a day — are paid $15,112.97 for the same tenure.

According to Tallapoosa County Schools, bus driver pay is set at state department of education guidelines, with distance-based compensation models suggested for county school systems, which are often more dispersed.

Coosa County Schools, however, pays all bus drivers for four hours a day, transportation director John Nelson said, with a starting salary of $14,201. Tallapoosa County Schools’ starting salary is $8,568.96 for short-route drivers, $10,314.93 for medium- and $13,804.62 for long-route drivers.

Tallapoosa County Schools plans to examine multiple school districts’ salary schedules at its committee meeting. The meeting will focus on Ford’s compensation grievances, after another committee meeting led by Davis met on Dec. 7 to address Ford’s non-compensation-related grievances.

One of these grievances is that Ford was not given a key to an exterior bathroom at Edward Bell. Ford also complained that bus drivers are barred from the Edward Bell teacher’s lounge, ever since one bus driver brought her dog to the lounge. The bus driver lounge, meanwhile, is warmed by a space heater and isn’t ADA-compliant, Ford said.

According to Edward Bell principal Chad McKelvey, bus drivers are in fact allowed in the teacher’s lounge as long as they aren’t noisy, Davis reported at the work session. Ford also already has key access to several bathrooms, McKelvey said.

Neither Ford nor his Alabama Education Association representative, T.C. Coley, were present at the committee meeting. Ford disputes the committee’s assertions and said that McKelvey never gave him a key.

“There’s so much stuff in there that’s flat-out not true,” he said.

John Ford may be the most vocal bus driver, but he maintains he’s not doing it for himself.

“I’m determined to represent all 45 families who need representation,” Ford said. “Did I go to them and ask them to support me? No. I knew that they were scared to do it. I knew they were frightened to lose their (health) insurance benefits.”

Ford has been going back and forth with the school board for half a decade, and he has a thick manila envelope of documents to show for it: salary matrices, copies of correspondence with the superintendent, a proposed pay agreement, his written rejection of that pay agreement, a photocopy of an ad in the Outlook for letters to the editor and a stack of about 15 draft letters, written by hand.

“I’m patient and I’m practical,” Ford said. “But my worst characteristic is I’m persistent. And I’m not fighting for John Ford.”