Gilbert Public Schools will again offer a $2-an-hour driving bonus for hard-to-find bus drivers, taking effect on the first day of school July 26.

The Governing Board on June 21 unanimously approved the proposal, which also included a $1-an-hour incentive for van drivers and bus monitors. Board member Sheila Uggetti attended via phone.

The bonuses, paid only for hours driving or supporting students, will be handed out in December and again in June 2023.

“We are still having a difficult time hiring bus drivers especially those with” a commercial driver’s license, Superintendent Shane McCord said. “We are currently down probably 35 to 40 drivers as of today. We think this incentive will help continue to hire individuals. It does seem to happen where we hire some and then we lose some.”

McCord noted the bonuses are a continuation of what the board approved last year for the current fiscal year when the district was facing a shortage of 43 bus drivers for the new school year.

“I hope it works,” board member Jill Humpherys said. “I hope we can find those drivers and make it a little easier on our transportation staff.”

The district’s transportation staffing currently includes 96 bus drivers, 58 bus monitors and 12 van drivers, according to spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis.

“The GPS transportation department is currently projecting being short around 40 drivers for the start of next year,” she said in an email. “The team is continually working on route efficiencies to address this and members of the leadership team (supervisors, routers, directors, etc.) are always on standby to drive when needed.”

The estimated $500,000 cost for the bonuses is included in the $280-million budget the governing board approved last week for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget includes pay raises for all district employees and assumes a loss of 400 students – the state fund school districts based on student head count.

The budget adoption came despite a stalemate at the Legislature over a 2022-23 state spending plan that was resolved the day after the board meeting.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders reached a bipartisan agreement on a new spending plan, rejecting efforts by some Republicans – including those representing most of Gilbert – to scuttle the plan.

The approval came after frustrated Republican leaders cut a deal with Democrats to secure budget passage before the June 30 deadline.

The result is that the final budget will immediately add $526 million to base education funding for K-12 schools, an 8.8% increase. That’s $60 million more than the original package.

The deal also scraps expansion of the ability of individuals to get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to help students attend private and parochial schools.

Those credits reduce the amount of funding available for all other state programs, including public education.

One piece of the final package, set for a vote later Thursday, includes creation of a system to provide state funds to parents who can use these vouchers to send their children to private and parochial schools. Those vouchers essentially redirect the state aid for that student that would have gone to the public school.

No one from the public spoke on GPS’ budget, which will now have to be retooled, likely next month, now that a state budget has been adopted and districts will know how much state funding they can expect in the coming fiscal year.

“I appreciate that we are conservative in trying to plan a budget especially when we don’t know exactly what funding we’re going to have yet or how many students we’ll have,” board President Lori Wood said.

“We’ve seen all kinds of ups and downs last couple of years where we’ve been in the middle of the year couple of times last two years wondering if we would have enough to even keep going with what we had.”

Bonnie Betz, assistant superintendent for business services, said the budget could see more money coming from the state should the Legislature pass HB 2866, which increases funding for K-12 education.

“We are estimating that the increase could be as much as $12 million for Gilbert Public Schools,” Betz said.

Wood noted the possibility of more state funding and GPS’ $28.9 million budget balance carry-forward in the new fiscal year and asked how that could be spent.

“How can we make the most of the dollars that we have and make sure that we’re using them for our students and teachers?” Wood said.

McCord said staff would review spending once the district had a number to work with.

“If there is a number to go over and we just put down our list of priorities, as always when it comes to staff salaries is always something to be able to be competitive with,” he said. “And if we were able to boost our starting pay above $50,000 or at $50,000, that’s something to look at.

“We have certain employee groups that we have to take a stronger look at to make sure that their salaries are where they need to be – competitive and then for our students again it is looking at what types of support they need, whether it’s academic support, whether it’s social-emotional support, whether it’s class size, those types of things.”

McCord said administration also would take any input from the board, as well.

Board member Dr. Charles Santa Cruz said he was intrigued by the budget balance carry forward and the fact that the district was still paying bills in the current budget through August.

“Do you see that time frame, between now and then, having a significant impact on that budget balance carry forward?” Santa Cruz asked.

Betz said it may result in somewhere between $1 million to $3 million more in the budget balance carry forward.

“It’s really hard to say,” she said. “The thing that we’re struggling with right now (is) we’ve been having a hard time spending our money because of the supply chain issues and so we’re going to have a lot of purchase orders that are open today that are going to have to roll over into next year.”

For example, she added, the district ordered six activity buses in October 2021 and they are anticipated to arrive at the earliest in January 2023.

Santa Cruz said the ongoing problem with getting supplies for various projects may cause GPS to delay spending and it may look like the district has more money that it actually has.

But “it’s already encumbered but perhaps not reflected in the documents,” he said.

Humpherys asked how inflation was going to affect the district’s projects.

Betz said staff met the day before with its consultant to go over the capital projects.

“He indicated that they were looking at construction cost increases of over 30%, so largely that will impact our bond,” Betz said. “But we are not seeing 30% increases across the board in the restricted capital but for bond projects.

“We’ve seen definitely increases. We have not quantified it though but that’s something that we’ll take a look at in the current year.”

Higley Unified School District also adopted a budget June 22 for the Fiscal Year 2021, totaling $117 million.

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