The West Baton Rouge School Board fought for the rights of parish school bus drivers during last Wednesday’s regular school board meeting, but not before tension and frustrations mounted among the board, the drivers and First Student, the busing company that the WBR School System contracts with.
During the meeting, the board decided to raise the WBR drivers’ extra route hourly rate from $10 an hour to $13 an hour, but shortly after WBR Superintendent David Corona made the recommendation for the pay increase, a lengthy discussion uncovered a bigger issue.
During discussions with the board and with bus drivers in attendance, Greg Gavins, senior location manager for First Student’s Baton Rouge region, said that beginning next school year First Student bus drivers, based on their union contract, will be able to select all extra routes before WBR Parish drivers, including routes from school to homes following sports and band practices after school.
Several years ago, the parish school system decided to contract bus driving duties to First Student. The board gave the parish bus drivers the choice to either remain WBR Schools’ employees, which would allow them to continue to have the same benefits and retirement packages; or move to First Student. First Student drivers soon thereafter unionized and placed verbiage in their contract that First Student must afford them first right of refusal for bus routes considered “extra routes.”
“Based on our union contract… it was in our contract that extra work, which is field trips and all the other stuff, is offered to our employees first, based on seniority,” Gavins explained to the bus drivers in attendance and the board. “Therefore, (extra routes) are being offered to unionized drivers first. You all are not part of our union.”
But in Wednesday’s meeting, WBR bus driver Donald Ray and other drivers expressed concern that they would be losing bus routes that they have regularly driven, and in turn they will be losing money.
Corona asked Gavins if, in fact, WBR bus drivers would be losing bus regular bus routes that they presently have, to which Gavins asked Ray about field trip routes he had regularly driven.
“I’m not talking about field trips,” Ray replied. “I’m talking about after school.”
Gavins responded, saying, “After school is now considered extra runs.”
“So in other words, I’m going to lose that?” Ray questioned.
“Yes,” answered Gavins. “Because that’s not a home-to-school run. Either we have home-to-school, school-to-home, or we have extra work.”
Ray contested that it is unfair that he and other WBR School System drivers lose regular work – and Corona agreed.
“I contend that as superintendent of the school board that contracts with y’all, I contend that those activity routes, whether they occur two times a week or four times a week, are regular routes and not extra routes,” Corona said after Gavins explained that the union had written a grievance about the routes in question. “The activity route, which is run in the afternoon, is a school-to-home route. My point is that it’s a school-to-home route.”
Teri Bergeron, School Board Member-at-Large, agreed with Corona, saying that the route should not be considered “extra.”
“That extra route – that’s daily. That activity route for football, basketball, band – it seems like… well that’s going to be a regular occurrence. All year long, that route is going to be occurring,” she said. “Whereas a field trip or extra work going to the library or a safety meeting – that’s extra.”
Gavins explained that the First Student bus drivers’ union’s grievance is still pending, and he may be able to reword the contract to allow the specified routes be considered school-to-home routes.
“They bring kids from school to home after their activity, that’s what they are,” Corona chimed. “I will tell our bus drivers this – I’m in your corner on this instance in terms of those routes. That’s yet to be worked out.
“I will tell you now, if they lose those routes, I don’t think that’s correct. I don’t think that’s an additional route, I think that’s a regular route.
“I will also say, publicly, that if that happens, I will recommend something to try and offset that loss, because I don’t think they should lose those routes.”
Gavins said that he understands the board’s concerns and will do what he can to make right the situation.
“Based on the decision on the board, and I’m the one that’s basically dealing with the unions in all four locations in this area, it’s done,” he said.
No action was taken on the specific “extra routes” issue, but the board decided to increase the bus drivers extra route pay from $10 an hour to $13 an hour, which Corona and Gavins agreed was “about average.”