INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Union leaders representing Indianapolis Public Schools bus drivers on Monday spoke publicly for the first time since 95 of 550 drivers and monitors called out sick in a surprise move Friday.
The absence of drivers and monitors led to nearly empty classrooms Friday and a warning for parents Monday. David Robertson, executive director of AFSCME Indiana-Kentucky Organizing Committee 962, said the drivers’ action took him by surprise. That’s part of the reason IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson promises to punish rogue bus drivers.
They said drivers have been shown a lack of respect and dignity after the school board voted in late January to switch to a new transportation provider. That change upset bus drivers and forced them to reapply for their jobs.
Robertson said, “It was a bit of a surprise. I think it was a surprise to everybody.”
About 14,000 kids, or 47% of IPS students, were in class at schools that use IPS transportation. That tally doesn’t include about 4,000 students in some schools that don’t use IPS buses.
On Monday, buses were back in action although 65 drivers called out sick.
IPS was unable to provide average attendance numbers for bus drivers and monitors. About one-third of the 550 drivers and monitors work for the district. The other two-thirds work for a private company called Durham School Services.
IPS gave parents a warning Sunday to be ready again for bus problems, but that effort proved to be unnecessary. Still, just 78% of students were in school Monday compared to an average attendance rate of 92%.
School officials met with AFSCME Council 962 on Monday.
Union leader Robertson said drivers “should be respected.
“They should have dignity. Their position are not just bus drivers. They’re really taking care of our children.”
Switching to First Student Transportation on July 1 will mean drivers will reapply for jobs. Also, they will no longer qualify for Indiana’s Public Employees’ Retirement Fund. But, Robertson said, the biggest issue for drivers was the lack of respect.
He said the union met with the school system in the fall and even negotiated a raise with no mention the district was looking at alternative bus providers. When the change was made public in January, officials said they’d been in talks for a year.
“We understand the frustration, that anxiety, the anger toward the bottom dropping out, but we’ve got to work together,” Robertson said.
IPS Superintendent Johnson thanked parents for making it work and getting alternate plans on short notice. But, she said, the mass callout from drivers made it difficult for them to guarantee the safety of their kids.
“When we have disagreements, there are ways for us to have conversation but putting students in the middle of that to me is never an acceptable solution,” Johnson said.
The union is working with drivers to transition to First Student. Robertson said he’s not worried any driver who wants a job can’t get one. He also doesn’t worry that there will be another mass callout. “No, not at this time, no.”
Closed-door meetings are ongoing between the union and the school district.
As for Johnson’s threat to act against rogue drivers, it’s unclear how they intend to differentiate between those who called out in protest and those who were truly sick.