September 22, 2020

School district plans to fire Mississippi bus drivers who walked out

A Mississippi school district said it will fire 21 bus drivers who walked off the job last week protesting a reduction in work hours and pay.

Fifteen of the drivers told The Commercial Dispatch on Friday that they received phone calls Thursday telling them administrators would recommend the school board fire them.

Drivers said the district is threatening the safety of the children they carry.

“We’re still upset about our pay and how we were treated,” said Renarda Dent, one of the drivers who met with the newspaper. “Right now, our main concern is safety. They don’t have enough drivers to do the routes safely. There’s no way to social distance when they’re doubling and tripling routes.”

Dent also said the school district isn’t correctly cleaning the buses.

On Aug. 24, 21 of the district’s 46 drivers refused to drive their routes, leaving parents and the school district scrambling to arrange for some students to return home.

Assistant Superintendent Glenn Dedeaux said he believes the district can adequately operate its routes with the remaining 25 drivers.

But drivers said doubling routes means students will likely be two to a seat with every row taken, raising the risk of spreading COVID-19

“There’s no way you’re going to social distance when you’re putting two or three routes together,” Dent said.

The drivers said their decision to refuse to work Monday afternoon was not planned, saying they arrived early at the bus staging area at Columbus High School in hopes of talking to district administrators.

“We didn’t (go there) to tell them we weren’t driving,” Delante Coleman said. “We tried to get something fixed so we could drive.”

Dedeaux said he arrived at the staging area after Transportation Supervisor Willie Stewart called him, saying some drivers weren’t going to drive their routes.

“No one ever asked me for a meeting,” Dedeaux said.

The Columbus district opted out of a contract with a bus company and started its own transportation department this fall, hiring the company’s former drivers.

School board members approved a revised salary schedule on Aug. 20. Due to the school district’s hybrid schedule, transportation is provided four days a week with no in-person classes on Wednesday.

At that meeting, the board adopted a $12 per hour pay rate, based on a schedule that reduced driver hours from six to 4 1/2 hours per day.

“When they called us in, they promised us six hours a day, five days a week,” Dent said. “Then they turned around and cut our hours to 4 1/2 and no pay on Wednesdays.”

School board President Jason Spears said, by law, the district cannot pay workers for hours they don’t work.

None of the drivers said they could complete their routes in that amount of time. Dedeaux said 4 1/2 hours was an average and drivers would be paid for all work.