It started in West Virginia, then moved to Kentucky and Oklahoma, spread to Arizona and Colorado, continued in North Carolina, and extended to South Carolina. These states saw teachers strike or walk out for higher pay, compensation, and more money for education earlier this year. In some cases, they have been successful.
Teachers recently had an impact in Los Angeles, California, where a union that supports school bus drivers and other school staff called for a one-day work stoppage in May to increase pay and protest cuts to hours for special-education assistants. The union and the Los Angeles Unified School District were able to reach a deal before the planned stoppage, with bus drivers gaining 3% or 4% raises retroactive to July 1, 2017, the right to work additional hours, and fewer steps in the bus driver wage scale to achieve the maximum wage. An important factor in their success, it seems, was that members of the district’s teachers union told the district that their teachers would not cross the picket lines, potentially prompting school closures during the strike.
These recent developments illustrate how much of what happens with transportation department as well as other school staff members can benefit from or be at the mercy of gains or losses for teachers, and how often pupil transportation is placed in the back seat.
West Virginia teachers, for example, successfully went on strike for higher wages for bus drivers and other support staff, such as custodial workers and cafeteria workers, as well as for themselves, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. They won a 5% pay raise for themselves and all other state workers, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Tony Harris, transportation supervisor at Preston County (W.Va.) Schools, recently told SBF that the state Legislature sets salary levels for most districts’ bus drivers, and that as of July 1, the starting salary will go up to $12.89 per hour as a result of the teacher strike. (A few of the state’s 55 counties offer a higher salary because they have an excess levy to help with wages.)
Oklahoma teachers also included higher pay for support staff among the concerns that caused them to walk out. School bus drivers pitched in and drove meals to students in need while school wasn’t in session, according to the Associated Press.
However, when hundreds of bus drivers in DeKalb County, Georgia, brought their concerns to light over pay, retirement benefits, and working conditions through a three-day-long “sick-out” in April, they got a different response from the school district. Seven of the nearly 400 drivers who had participated in the sick-out were fired for promoting or encouraging the sick-out, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. After the drivers were let go, though, a community group supporting them addressed the school board to ask the district to rehire the drivers. No support from local educators was reported during the sick-out.
Bus drivers could be in the shadows in part due to a lack of documented information. An Indiana school principal, who is also a substitute school bus driver and is researching driver recruitment and retention for his doctorate in education, recently told SBF that in his research he has been struck by the disparity between data available on school bus drivers’ salaries and compensation and that of teachers.
Teachers’ salaries as a percentage of schools’ overall budget are much bigger than that of school bus drivers, said Dan Zylstra, elementary principal at West Central School Corp. in Francesville, Indiana. Because they are not as big of a piece of the pie economically, there isn’t much focus on auxiliary positions such as bus drivers, teaching assistants, and custodial staff.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing, because I know that if a kid has a quality bus ride to and from school, [that can] make the kid’s day,” Zylstra noted. “If we can get as many good people in those positions as possible, it’s valuable to the school and worth the extra compensation.”
It will be interesting to see whether teacher strikes continue in more states, whether that fight extends to include crucial support staff such as school bus drivers, and how concerns voiced by drivers and transportation department managers are treated moving forward. Hopefully, they are recognized as the essential team members they are in the very important effort to educate students.