Published: Nov 09, 2010 3:16 AM EST
Updated: Nov 08, 2010 8:32 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Teachers, books, supplies, they're all things you pay for to make sure kids make the grade.  But you're also paying for millions of dollars in overtime and the Lee County School's Transportation Department is racking up most of it.  While the district tries to get spending under control, we found some employees milking the clock all on your dime!

In this economy, the Lee County School District says OT is a no-no.

"We try to look at overtime as a last resort," said Lee County School spokesman, Joe Donzelli.

But if that's the case, why did our WINK News investigation uncover driver after driver with their buses parked, piling up overtime?  Last year, the district spent $4.5 million on overtime; a majority of it, $3.6 million, came from the transportation department.  In fact, a recent transportation department audit pointed it out as a problem saying, "overtime premium pay is a considerable element in the LCPS transportation program."

It also pointed out some drivers are earning more than $50,000 a year thanks to overtime.  How is it happening?  We went undercover to find out and found drivers like this one.

School district records show his route ends at 5:04pm.  But three days in a row, just after 5:00pm, we saw him pull into a Cape Coral park and get out of the bus to go to the bathroom.  Then he came back to the bus and waited and waited and waited, for more than a half an hour.  When he finally left, we followed him as he took a different route each of the three days back to the bus barn; finally getting back to the bus barn at 6:00pm each day.

We took our findings to the school district and asked if sitting around for 30 minutes after a bus route is over is a violation of policy.

"I would have to look specifically to see what the route is assigned.  There is a certain amount of time that is assigned.  That individual who is sitting for 30 minutes might be sitting there for 30 minutes because they are considered a sweeps bus, and if a bus broke down in that area or if a student is missed at a stop, they would be dispatched to pick up those students.  In that specific case, I don't know; I would have to do some more research," Joe Donzelli responded.

We then received an email from the district saying the bus driver was not a sweep bus.  It also stated that they would be looking into whether the driver needed to be disciplined.

Why didn't the district know about this problem before we brought it to their attention?

The audit points out that though the district has GPS on the buses, it's not being used to track the buses unless they go missing.  The audit called that "a waste."

The audit also points out another important issue, like what's happening to another driver we found.  He's done with his route and parked outside his home.  We watch for more than a half an hour.  He finally gets back in his bus and drives across town to Cypress Lake High to pick up kids from after school activities.

We also found four buses sitting outside the Country Kitchen on Palm Beach Boulevard, all empty and not a driver in sight, and all while on the clock.  

The audit points out that none of the five drivers are doing anything wrong.  The audit blames the system itself saying large gaps in route times leave many drivers just waiting to go to their next stop.  The audit estimated cutting just ten minutes of overtime pay per driver would save the district $1.1 million dollars.

We asked the district spokesman if the district is happy with the amount of overtime being paid out and if they think there are enough safeguards in place to make sure that overtime is not abused.  

"Well I don't know if happy or unhappy is the term I would use.  I think we are constantly striving for is that any overtime used is appropriate," Donzelli replied.

So, is the overtime the district pays out reasonable?

New school board member, Don Armstrong says this is an issue he plans to look at closely.

"That needs to come under control and I mean immediately.  I want it cut down to nothing, next to nothing this time next year.  If not, I will ask the superintendent who we need to replace in our school district," Armstrong told us.

The audit also blamed some of the overtime on the district being short 41 drivers and recommended the district promptly hire more drivers.  The lack of drivers is not because of a lack of interest, the district has 125 pending applications.

If you believe a driver isn't following district procedures, call the Transportation Department at 239-590-4000.  They'll need the bus number, date, time and location so they can investigate.

To see the entire Lee County School Transportation audit, click on this link.