FLORENCE, S.C. — Florence One Schools superintendent Richard O'Malley stumbled across what he termed an underground economy when he began investigating the structure of payments to the district's bus drivers.
O'Malley spoke at length at Florence One Schools board meeting held Thursday evening.
He began by providing the board an overview of what happened so far with the drivers. The issues began, O'Malley said, when a group of drivers led by Wayne Brown addressed the board during their budget meeting on Oct. 8. Since then, the drivers have held vigils, rallies, protested in front of board member's businesses and made several appearances in local media organizations.
The crux of their claims is that the district is not paying the drivers a living wage.
Brown spoke at the budget meeting and claimed that he had received a paycheck with $100 in it.
"I want you to remember those things when I go through this packet," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said the drivers' claims of not being paid a livable wage was inaccurate.
Florence One pays drivers more than most surrounding districts
O'Malley's presentation began with a chart showing how much the district paid its drivers per hour compared to Chesterfield, Marion, Sumter, Lee, Marlboro, Darlington, Horry, Greenville and Richland One districts over steps of zero, five, 10, 15 and 20 years.
Richland County − the location of the state capital, Columbia − is home to three school districts: Richland One and Two and Lexington-Richland Five. Generally, Richland Two and Lexington-Richland Five cover the city's suburbs and are home to wealthier residents. Richland One in general covers the poorer and more rural areas of the county.
The chart shows that Florence One pays its drivers a higher starting wage ($12.19 per hour) than all of those counties except Horry ($13 per hour with zero years of experience), Greenville ($15.21) and Richland One ($15.22).
Those three districts maintain a higher wage throughout five, 10, 15 and 20 year steps on the chart.
Other than Darlington County, none of the other districts are at the same or higher hourly rate.
Darlington's starting wage is $11.98 per hour, but it has a higher hourly rate at the five, 10, 15, and 20 year steps. However, Florence One pays its drivers for 185 days of work at seven hours per day. Darlington pay its drivers a higher hourly rate but only pays for 180 days of work, so the wages are roughly equal.
The next sheet O'Malley provided the board shows a list of other incentives and bonuses for drivers, including a $500 perfect attendance bonus per semester in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years and a $2,000 perfect attendance bonus for the whole year in the 2019-2020 school year. It also indicates that drivers − and all district employees − have received raises of 1% in 2018-2019, 5% in 2019-2020 and 1% in 2020-2021. Also, the district has increased the number of paid days from 180 to 185, changed the number of checks from 17 to 24 to make sure employees got paid all year and lowered the amounts deducted from their checks in the process, and the district advanced pay and sick time at the start of this year.
He added that the district has also reassigned the allocation of field trips, games and other extra assignments to prevent a school from assigning all of its extras to one or two drivers.
O'Malley also provided a chart showing how much the state reimbursed districts for drivers. That starts at $7.85 per hour for a driver with zero years of experience.
Drivers are paid for working 7 hours per day regardless of how many hours they work
O'Malley later provided the board with a chart that compared how many hours the drivers worked with how many hours the drivers were getting paid for.
"We'll just take Mr. Wayne Brown, who came before you and talked," O'Malley said.
Board member Alexis D. Pipkins Sr. interrupted to point out that O'Malley is not allowed under the state Freedom of Information Act law to name an employee who makes less than $50,000 per year.
"I'll take someone named W.B., and we'll go down and across," O'Malley said.
He then said that this person actually worked 26 hours but was paid for 28 during the four-day first week of school and worked 29.29 hours but was paid for 35 during the second week of school.
Pipkins stopped O'Malley to ask for a clarification from the board attorney about O'Malley's continued comments about the employee.
The attorney said O'Malley was not allowed to name the name of someone making less than $50,000 per year.
O'Malley added that he was not talking about salary but instead talking about hours worked.
Later, board member Barry Townsend calculated that 47 of 63 drivers listed were paid for more hours than they actually worked.
O'Malley then continued to say that the person worked 191.94 hours but was paid for 238 hours, a difference of 44.54 hours.
"What I am saying here is that we paid an individual 44 more hours than they actually worked," O'Malley said.
Board member John Galloway joked that he wanted to become a bus driver again after learning about the system.
Florence One bus drivers make more than their hourly rates multiplied by the number of hours
O'Malley's next chart is based upon the W-2s the district provided to the drivers in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
W-2s are the forms provided by employers to employees and the Internal Revenue Service to show how much the employee makes per year.
"Nobody can ever say that I am giving fake numbers," O'Malley said. "This is every employee. This is what they report to the IRS, and this verifies what they actually made."
Pipkins objected to the use of W-2s, because he said he showed everything the drivers made including custodial work or assisting in another way.
In 2018-2019, the district had four drivers make more than $50,000, 10 make between $40,000 and $49,999, 12 between $30,000 and $33,999, 14 between $25,000 and $29,999 and 19 between $20,000 and $24,999.
No driver made less than $20,000. The average salary was $27,246.86.
In response to a question from Galloway, O'Malley said this system was not equal.
"It's not equitable," he said. "There's something happening here."
The sheet O'Malley used also says that six drivers made $30,000 or more higher than their budgeted salaries, eight drivers made between $20,000 and $29,999 higher than their budged salary, 32 drivers made between $10,000 and $19,999 higher than their budgeted salary, 20 drivers made between $5,000 and $9,999 over their budgeted salary and 15 drivers made between $1,000 and $4,999 higher than their budgeted salary.
O'Malley added that some teachers do not make as much as the top earning bus drivers did.
In 2019-2020, seven drivers made more than $40,000, seven made between between $30,000 and $33,999, 13 between $25,000 and $29,999, 17 between $20,000 and $24,999 and 11 between $16,000 and $19,999.
No driver made less than $16,000. The average salary was $23,649.07.
The sheet O'Malley used also says that five drivers made between $20,000 and $29,999 higher than their budged salary, 16 drivers made between $10,000 and $19,999 higher than their budgeted salary, 16 drivers made between $5,000 and $9,999 over their budgeted salary and 16 drivers made between $1,000 and $4,999 higher than their budgeted salary.
'The underground economy'
O'Malley said the district budgeted $1.62 million to pay its bus drivers but actually paid $2.44 million in 2018-2019. The difference between those figures is $823,753.19. He called the $823,753.19 figure "staggering."
"$823,000? You never saw that," O'Malley told the board. "I called it an underground economy, because $800,000 is totally different than what was bargained for. Let me be clear: The bus drivers didn't do anything wrong. The bus drivers did not do anything illegal. Bus drivers had no fault in that. This was the system that was in place. But this system cannot exist. There's no way we could afford that."
He later estimated that a driver would have to drive 24 hours per day, seven days per week in order for the district to reach as much overtime pay as it did.
In 2019-2020, the district budgeted $1.23 million and paid $1.66 million, a difference of $423,225.03.
O'Malley said the district has been working to try to curtail the system to reflect a more accurate number.
"There's no way you can get to $800,000," O'Malley said. "In two years, the amount of extra for bus drivers [in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020] is equal to the raise I gave every single employee of 1% in the district. Think about that. The amount we gave the whole district is the same as what we gave a few bus drivers in two years."
He later said this system was broken.
"I don't know why everyone here isn't scathing mad," O'Malley said. "When I sit and I watch people on television attacking me when the the facts are clear, that's not right."
Pipkins later said it wasn't fair for O'Malley to attack the drivers. He then asked if O'Malley had sat down to meet with the drivers.
O'Malley said no.
Pipkins said the drivers just wanted to sit down and talk with O'Malley.
"They know exactly what's happening," O'Malley responded. "They know exactly how much they get paid. But then to come and say, 'I don't make a living wage' when I know their W-2s that they're reporting to the IRS says a number $30,000 more, that's not fair to anyone. ..."
No other group of classified employees receive as much extra pay
In 2018-2019, all culinary services employees collectively received $77,216.08 of extra hours or overtime, all custodians collectively received $13,500.17 of extra scheduled hours or overtime and classroom assistants received no extra scheduled hours or overtime.
In 2019-2020, all culinary services employees collectively received $234,296.35 of extra hours or overtime, all custodians collectively received $7,652.80 of extra scheduled hours or overtime and classroom assistants received no extra scheduled hours or overtime,
O'Malley added that the first year of the Chartwell's contract was during the 2019-2020 school year, so added overtime was to be expected.
"I'm not saying what a bus driver should make or not make," O'Malley said. "What I am saying is, as a board, you can't tell one group that they're going to take $1.2 million and everyone else gets nothing. Think about this. At Williams Middle School, we had eight teachers assistants teaching classrooms because we couldn't afford more teachers. But yet, $1 million was going to the bus drivers for extra. That's a broken system. ... I can't fix this budget when we have all these what I call underground economies operating that we don't figure out. There's no way we can do this."
O'Malley said a proposed $5 per hour wage increase would cost the district more than $400,000. He has objected to the idea because he has said it would be difficult to raise just the drivers' salaries.
Townsend said that the classroom assistants were some of those people tasked with watching students after a group of drivers walked off the job last week.
COVID-19 changed the equation
The existing system worked for the drivers, O'Malley later explained, but once COVID-19 shutdowns came and the district closed its doors, the extra hours weren't there for drivers to work. And the drivers had budgeted for the extra hours to be there.
This led to the bus drivers' appearance at the budget session.
When the drivers presented to the board at that meeting, O'Malley said he thought the drivers were victims of the state health insurance premium system where everyone pays the same amount regardless of income.
However, after reading the W-2s, the district learned that many of the drivers don't take the benefits for that reason.
Board member Tricia C. Caulder then asked O'Malley if things like child support garnishments could impact the size of a paycheck.
O'Malley answered in the affirmative.
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