A roomful of angry Metro school bus drivers packed Tuesday’s school board meeting, voicing displeasure over Schools Director Jesse Register’s decision to cut their workday by an hour, outlined in the district’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
Several bus drivers held handmade signs, while others wore union T-shirts, as several longtime drivers made their way up to the podium where they made impassioned cases against Register’s $633 million proposed budget, which seeks to reduce the schedules of the system’s 595 bus drivers from eight to seven hours.
The crux of their argument: Why target the district’s lowest earning employees –– support staff employees –– to tackle the district’s projected $35 million shortfall, instead of making cuts across the board?
“It was quoted that the cuts are because of the economy,” Mary Eady, a bus driver for 35 years and president of the local steelworkers union, told Register and the nine-member board. “Why does the economy affect only the lowest paid employees, who are asked to bite the bullet and keep their jobs?”
While Register has called the cuts a tough choice, he’s made clear he didn’t want to replicate last year’s move to lay off 150 teachers. Register has said the proposed budget protects in-class instruction.
Reducing the number of paid hours for bus drivers is expected to net $2.5 million in savings. Combined with slashing 24 central office positions and outsourcing school custodial services, total cuts have been tallied at $10.9 million.
“It’s hard,” Register said of the proposed hour-cut for bus drivers. “But we are in a very tough economy. It was hard to make decisions last year to cut employees, and we have reduced the number of employees that will be working in the central office. All of that’s tough.”
Bus drivers who spoke up Tuesday pointed out they only get paid for 10 months of work per year, forcing most to turn to part-time summer jobs. On top of that, they questioned how retirement benefits could change under their revamped pay structure.
“If teachers are the backbone of the school system then school bus drivers, custodians and other support staff are the blood, sweat and tears of the system,” said Eric Warfield, a bus driver for 18 years. “I guess I’ll have to find me a new job in your new convention center.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
Register has said bus drivers right now are being paid for eights hours of work when they only drive around seven hours each day. He said supervisors have determined that the proposed work-cut should still give drivers time to perform their jobs.
“It’s a way to get closer to actual time worked than what the present agreement calls for,” Register said. “I think we’re very safe with the estimates that we have made.”
But several bus drivers told the board and Register that their workdays far exceed eight hours when taking into account maintenance work, cleanup and gas fill-ups of buses, along with other responsibilities.
Tuesday’s showing was a precursor to the scene that’s likely to unfold Thursday at 5:30 p.m. when the board entertains a public hearing on the budget.