A decision by about half of Columbus Municipal School District bus drivers to walk off the job over pay issues Monday afternoon had district officials scrambling to return schoolchildren to their homes and arrange for them to be returned to school this morning.
Bus drivers, notified of changes to their pay and hours during a Monday morning meeting with CMSD transportation director Willie Stewart, arrived at Columbus High School around 1 p.m. The high school is the staging area for the district’s buses, but instead of preparing for the afternoon’s route, a group of 21 drivers met outside the school property, refusing to run their routes.
By 2, only 10 of the scheduled 46 buses had left to begin their routes, although Assistant Superintendent Glen Dedeaux said a few other drivers arrived later and ran their routes.
Parents were notified by text message to pick up their children while many of the remaining bus drivers ran double routes.
Reached Monday evening, CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat said all students had reached their homes safely and preparations to ensure students were picked up for today’s classes had been made. She referred all other questions — including the status of the drivers who refused to drive their routes and current bus staffing — to Stewart and Dedeaux.
Stewart did not return phone calls or text messages by press time.
Reached Tuesday morning, Dedeaux said the district had 25 drivers to report for work Tuesday and that all routes were completed.
Diana Prince, one of the drivers who walked off the job Monday, said she is open to negotiating a return to work.
“I would be willing to work with them to find a solution, but it’s all about the pay,” said Prince, who has driven city school buses since 2015.
Spears: ‘We can’t just pay them for hours they don’t work’
Prior to this year, most of the CMSD drivers were employees of EccoRide, which contracted with the district to provide bus service. CMSD opted out of the EccoRide contract in May after the school year was abruptly ended on April 14 by order of Gov. Tate Reeves because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As CMSD assembled its own transportation system in July, it offered jobs to most of the drivers who had previously worked with EccoRide.
Drivers are paid on a monthly basis. The first pay period ends Friday.
At Monday morning’s meeting, drivers were told they would be paid for 4 1/2 hours per day and would not be paid for Wednesdays. Under the CMSD’s school plan, all students take classes virtually on Wednesday and no bus routes are driven.
Previously, bus drivers were paid for 30 hours per week. Under the new school plan, the hours have been reduced to 18 hours per week.
CMSD’s bus driver pay schedule shows that drivers with up to five years experience receive an annual pay of $9,720, which is $12 per hour based on a four-day, 4 1/2 -hour schedule. Calculated on a 6-hour work day, the starting pay amounts to $9 per hour.
The schedule provides additional pay for each five-year increment of service — a $1 per hour increase for each of those five years of service, capping at $15 per hour for a driver with 16 years or more service. Calculated at the six-hour work day drivers expected, the cap would be $11.25 per hour.
“There’s no way we can do this,” Prince said.
CMSD Board of Trustees President Jason Spears said he didn’t learn of the strike until after the drivers walked off the job.
“From what I gather, somehow there was some misunderstanding by the drivers that they would be paid for Wednesdays,” Spears said Monday evening after conferring with Labat. “They also thought they would be paid for six hours. But by state law, we cannot pay for work that isn’t performed.”
Spears said the district’s new school plan factored into the confusion.
“When we were putting together our reopening plan, we were trying to determine how many students we would have and what routes would be running,” he said. “When school started (on Aug. 6) it was an estimation. But when we started running routes we realized the drivers were only working 4 1/2 hours, not six. Again, we can’t just pay them for hours they don’t work.”
More than just driving
CMSD schools operate with a combination of virtual and hybrid classes. About 60 percent of the students — roughly 2,000 — participate in the hybrid schedule, with one group of students attending classes in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and another group on Thursdays and Fridays. The other 40 percent of students are enrolled in virtual classes only. All students participate virtually on Wednesdays or on the days they are not physically attending classes on campus.
The new schedule means there are fewer students on buses, which translates to faster routes, but drivers said they are being asked to perform other work that they weren’t required to perform prior to COVID-19.
“We spend a lot of time with sanitation,” Prince said. “A lot of us are also providing snacks for the children out of our own pocket. We are essential workers. We’re not asking for anything extra, just what we were told we were going to get.”
Spears said he had discussed calling a special meeting to address the situation, but after talking with Labat, he said the superintendent has the authority to address most of the issues without board approval.
“The only thing, really, that would require board action is pay adjustment,” he said. “That hasn’t been proposed.”
‘We could manage with the drivers we have’
While some drivers ran double routes and some parents picked up their children Monday, the impact of the walk-out was obvious.
Brittany Tuner, director for the Columbus branches of the Boys and Girls Club of the Golden Triangle, said only two students — one from Joe Cook Elementary and another from Stokes-Beard Elementary — were dropped off for the club’s after-school program as of 3 p.m. Monday.
“Normally, we have about 20 kids dropped off by the buses,” she said.
Under state law, school bus drivers are required to hold a Class B Commercial Drivers License.
Dedeaux said no decision has been made on the status of the drivers who did not run their routes Monday.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen there,” said Dedeaux, who said he believed the district could manage with the 25 drivers who reported Tuesday morning.
“We may have to consolidate some routes and adjust pick-up schedules,” he said. “That’s one of the things we are working on. But, in my opinion, we could manage with the drivers we have as long as we don’t lose any more.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]