Bus driver Michelle Diming told the school board that the district's transportation workers are the backbone of the school community. Photo: Alek Lewis

Around 35 workers in the Riverhead Central School District’s transportation department came out in force at yesterday’s school board meeting to publicly ask for pay raises to deal with the rising cost of living. 

Those involved in the more than 30-minute back and forth between the school board and workers were the only speakers during the public hearing on the district’s proposed $192 million budget for next school year.

Clifford Koziuk, a bus driver, got the ball rolling. He asked whether there were any raises proposed by the budget. Superintendent Augustine Tornatore responded by saying that the budget included contractual raises. 

Then, Koziuk got more specific. “What was the proposed raise for our school superintendent?” Koziuk asked from his seat across the auditorium, seeming to refer to the $30,000 increase in the budget line for the superintendent’s salary.

Tornatore avoided the question. “If items have been put in that are proposed, it does not mean that the Board of Education has voted on those particular increases. That’s a conversation that I do need to have with the Board of Education,” he said.

Tornatore anticipated Koziuk’s next question and said he has met with CSEA union leadership about opening up employment contracts this summer to discuss increases in pay.

“Why wasn’t an increase proposed for its drivers? The people who gets the kids to the schools so that everybody else can perform their function?” he asked.

“Sir, because the district is a public entity and not a private entity, I cannot arbitrarily give increases to staff members who are in a bargaining [agreement],” Tornatore said.

Bus driver Richard Linder told the board the bus drivers’ pay scale is not comparable to other school bus companies. Photo: Alek Lewis

The current union contract gives a raise of 2% each year, workers said. The current contract expires in June 2024. Wages start at $25.55 an hour for bus drivers and $15.55 an hour for bus monitors, workers said.

Koziuk said a raise in this year’s budget would demonstrate “good faith” from the board and “encourage the workers of the school district in transportation.”

Sheila Cumberbatch, a bus monitor, said the group is “dissatisfied” with the current wages. “There are other school districts that are making more than we make. We’re not even where we need to be to be with the cost of living — we’re below the cost of living,” she said.

“Many of us are working two jobs just to survive and make it,” she continued. “And I think it’s sad that nobody even considers us as essential workers. We’re mentors to the kids; we take a lot of abuse from parents and the kids.”

Cumberbatch said a 2% increase is an “insult” and detailed her own struggles to pay her rent and her bills. She and her fellow workers want to feel “appreciated” — and that means more pay, she said.

“If it’s not us bringing the kids to school there wouldn’t be a [school] board, there wouldn’t be —Riverhead High School, there wouldn’t be anything. We are the ones who have to bring the kids to their school; I feel like we are considered essential workers,” said Richard Lindor, a bus driver.

Lindor said the district’s transportation department is in “no way comparable” to other bus companies, who he said try to get them to switch jobs for higher wages. The employees stay because they are “dedicated to the children of the Riverhead Central School District,” he said.

Bus driver Michelle Diming said she and other employees do not get compensated for training other employees, as it was removed in the last contract. She said some employees just use the district to receive free training and a license, and then move on to a department with higher wages. She said transportation workers should receive bonuses for all they do.

“We’re the ones that are actually the backbones of the community, bringing the children in,” Diming said. “It really would show some appreciation if the district and the school board would just take the power that you have and show your employees some love.”

Board of Education President Brian Connelly told the workers that they have to communicate with their unit president. He said the board is open to negotiations. 

“I think, in front of everybody, we can say, we want to negotiate. Can we start tomorrow morning?” Lindor said to applause. 

CSEA Unit President Sonya Johnson addressed the crowd of workers. “I understand your concerns; I feel what you feel,” she said. “Yes, Dr. Tornatore and I sat down. The options were, yes, to open the contract. But you guys got to know, when you open a contract, it’s not just for you, it’s for every department in our unit.” 

“And not just that, all the things in the lines in between those pages, all of that is open up for us to give and take, it’s not just going to happen automatically,” she continued. “So that’s why we discussed that it’s a good idea to do contract negotiations [and] starting sooner rather than later.”

The school district’s 2023-23 budget vote will take place on Tuesday, May 16 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Trustee Colin Palmer is sworn in as school board vice president. Photo: Alek Lewis

Also at the meeting, the school board: 

  • Held a public hearing and approved the expenditure of $1,046,500 from the 2017 Repair Reserve Fund for various projects throughout the district.
  • Suspended the district policy that weights Regents exams as 20% of a student’s final course grade, unless the score would improve the overall course grade. The policy has been suspended every school year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Some school board members have advocated to make permanent the changes, which are referred to as a “do no harm” policy. 
  • Appointed Trustee Colin Palmer as vice president of the board for the rest of the school year. The position of vice president was vacated on March 28 after Trustee Laurie Downs resigned from the board following blowback from comments made about Latino people and gangs in Brentwood.
  • Tabled a resolution to authorize the district to “piggyback” off of existing contracts between the New York State Office of General Services and other companies to conduct $1,548,249 million in district-wide security upgrades. During the public comment period, a representative of one of the companies whose bid proposal was rejected by the board spoke out against the resolution. A Freedom of Information Law request from RiverheadLOCAL to view the bids is pending.
MORE COVERAGE OF THE 2023-24 SCHOOL DISTRICT BUDGET:
School board OKs $20 million spending increase for next school year, requiring 1% tax levy hike
Adopted state budget includes happy surprise for Riverhead schools: $19.6 million jump in aid, nearly $9 million more than projected by governor

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com