Unlike some school districts that supported recent teacher walkouts for better pay, school administrators at DeKalb County School District are not as empathetic with school bus drivers who are waging similar protests.
Monday was the third day of a planned three-day sick-out by many DeKalb County school bus drivers. Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green said in a press conference on Thursday that 42 percent of drivers, or almost 400 drivers, were absent. A local news outlet reported that the number had dropped to 25 percent on Friday.
Messages sent last week to parents warned them that school buses may be running an hour late. Substitute drivers, school staff with CDLs and drivers on loan from Decatur City Schools, pitched in to get Thursday’s routes covered. Green said the district also had options from third-party vendors. The district told parents that students who were late because of the bus situation would not be penalized.
Chief Operations Officer Joshua Williams said that after the initial confusion of Thursday morning, operations would be made more streamlined and efficient. Green added that delays in student pickup and dropoff times should be reduced to 30-45 minutes.
Messages left with the district requesting updated information on how the sick-out affected bus schedules on Friday and Monday, had not been returned at this report.
School bus rivers have voiced concerns over pay, retirement and other issues for some time, but a meeting between Green and over 350 bus drivers on April 17 ended in an impasse. Green said the district is bringing in experts to assist in negotiations.
He added that collective bargaining is not a part of those negotiations, but there was “conversation and collaboration” taking place on the “long list” of things that drivers are concerned about. The list includes such items as fixing potholes in depots, improving lighting for safety, adding restrooms, and reimplementing transportation employee recognition.
Green thanked the drivers who did come in to work, which he called a show of good faith in anticipation of an agreement. He revealed that some drivers who showed up for work had been “threatened, harassed, and/or bullied,” and he promised an investigation and discipline for anyone discovered engaging in such behavior.
“Your actions have consequences and there will be repercussions for putting our students in harm’s way,” he warned absent bus drivers.
Green said he expects drivers to have a doctor’s note for each day they were absent. It is within his scope, he said, to reprimand or terminate drivers who show up without one.
The district has already taken decisive action and fired seven employees who “were among a group found to actively support or encourage bus drivers not to report to work.”
Green reiterated the importance of school bus drivers and the district’s commitment to “addressing the concerns as we can to make sure that our learning environment and service to our students is beneficial to all.”
The pay for bus drivers in DeKalb, said Green, is equal to or greater than rates in nearby Gwinnett County School District, Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County School District, and is only slightly below Cobb County School District. He added that if bus drivers receive a raise, other staff, such as cafeteria workers, must also be considered for pay bumps. Such a proposal would need to be brought to the school board, he said.
A district fact sheet shows that bus drivers have received five cost-of-living increases since 2014. In 2015, they were moved from a five-hour workday to a six-hour day, which resulted in a 20 percent raise. They are listed as part-time employees, but receive benefits like health care, retirement and personal leave.
Earlier this month, a strike by school bus drivers at Dayton Public Schools in Ohio was narrowly avoided, when federal mediation led to the administration and union leaders agreeing on a three-year contract. However, the sick-out at DeKalb County is not union-led. An attempt by Superintendent Green to meet with the head of the district-appointed Driver and Monitor Advisory Committee, formed by department management, and to act as a liaison between drivers and the administration, was rejected. Instead, Green said he has since been meeting with driver sub-groups.