School employee caught padding her time card and costing taxpayers

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LEE COUNTY, Fla. – A WINK News investigation into school bus drivers found at least one driver who was bilking the system.

WINK News Call for Action investigators followed several buses for more than a month and found one driver, who parked her bus each day for more than an hour before returning to the bus barn. Investigators first noticed bus 310 in March. The driver, Caroline Seawright, was parked alongside Michigan Avenue, near Marsh Avenue. WINK News setup cameras to watch Seawright as she dropped students off at an apartment complex nearby and then pulled onto the side of the road, tearing up the grass. For three days in a row, our investigators filmed Seawright pull over, wait roughly an hour and then drive the bus back to the depot.

After realizing Seawright was not waiting for anyone, our investigators contacted the Lee County School District.

“I would like to thank you for bringing it to our attention…Understand that this person is going under a scrutiny right now. The bus number is 310. I have talked to the young lady and she’s aware that I’m doing this interview and she’s aware that it will be addressed here. But understand, that she has, there are managerial guidelines…but what you identified with her, it appears that it’s correct,” said Robert Morgan, the executive director of transportation for the district.

WINK News confirmed with the school district that Seawright was also charging the district overtime during that hour she was just sitting. Call for Action investigators obtained documents from the district detailing all 819 bus operators salaries and the overtime paid to each. We found Seawright logged 187 overtime hours between August 2014 and April 2015.

“When you find out something like this, your people and someone unfortunately taking advantage of the system, what do you think?” asked Call for Action Reporter Lindsey Sablan.

“Sadness, it’s that. You know we have 752 runs, running right now, we have 819 bus operators and unfortunately in life not everyone does what they should and it can disappoint you. We put them through school, teach them what to do, it’s disappointing,” Morgan responded.

WINK News also looked at how much money the school district spent between August 2014 and April 2015 in just overtime. We found the district paid out $2.7 million to bus drivers alone. In fact, one driver had clocked 622 hours of overtime in nine months. However, Morgan explained most of that overtime is legitimate.

“We have 65,000 [students] eligible for transportation on a daily basis. School starts early in the morning, they take their break in the afternoon. We have work study, that is mandated…we have the activity buses to take them home and then you have to compound that with the field trips you have on the weekend,” he said. “You get a couple of senior bus operators who can choose the longer routes, as they have the right to do and then they have seniority. A couple of good weekends, long runs overnight. Those hours add up.”

In fact, this year the Lee County School District budgeted $60.5 million for transportation, and Morgan said roughly $4 million of that goes to extra hours worked by operators. He explained how some of the drivers we found sitting around, were actually doing their job.

For example, our investigators watched as bus 1000 sat at Three Oaks Park each day for roughly an hour before returning to the bus barn. Morgan explained that bus was one of four used by the district as ‘standby buses.’ He said they have four ‘standby buses’ scattered throughout the district in case another bus breaks down. In theory, those drivers are not paid overtime, unless they are called out.

Another example WINK News found was bus 2674, who was an activity bus.

“That bus does an arterial route after school so he pulls into that parking lot because it’s a nice public place, goes to the restroom and makes sure his bus is ready. He goes back to school to pick up the students who stay after school for activities.”

But WINK News investigators watched as bus 2674 went to the school and did not pick up students, then returned the bus barn. Morgan said in a perfect world, the school would notify a bus if that student was not there for after-school activities, but he admitted it does not always happen.

As for the driver of bus 310, Caroline Seawright, the district said she is being investigated. Morgan said the district will also pay for the damage done to the grass her bus destroyed when she pulled along Michigan Avenue each day.

“I think we do a great job. I think the fact that this incident occurred, I think the fact that being on this interview makes our bus operators aware, makes the students aware, makes the public aware. The more awareness we have, unfortunately in life, the better accountability. You can take things and turn it into a negative. You have 1,200 people in transportation and not everyone is going to do right. I can say this to you, those people that see this are going to behave because they don’t want this. So I thank you.”

Morgan said he encourages anyone in the public to report suspicious bus activity. The easiest way to do that, is to download the district’s app.

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