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Louisiana: District Lobbies Against Adequate Funds for Its School Bus Drivers

November 20, 2021

On November 13, 2021, the school district for which I work, St. Tammany Parish Public Schools, barely passed the ten-year millage renewal that provides 25% of the district’s operating budget and that have been in place since 1966 and 1977 in the form of four millages.

I was surprised how close the millage came to failing. Final votes in 2021 for the four millages can be seen here; the votes were 53-54% in favor– which means 46-47% against renewal.

Loss of this funding would have surely crippled St. Tammany Schools. I spoke with my longtime friend and colleague, Brant Osborn, about the close vote. He said that had the millages failed, the most likely expense to hit the chopping block would have been retirement benefits: “Think about it. Retired employees are no longer working, and all efforts would be expended to keep the schools running, which means paying current current employees, who would also surely have faced reduction in force. Loss of the millage funding would have been a disaster. If any situation would have turned St. Tammany Schools over to charter operators, this would have been it.”

My surprise at how close we came to losing the millages is underscored by my experience with the last millage vote, which occurred in April 2012. At the time, Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, was actively campaigning against millages and calling them “new taxes.” However, despite his efforts, millage votes across the state did well, including St. Tammany Schools’ millages passing with overwhelming support (80% in favor).

I asked Osborn about his thoughts regarding the close call in 2021. His response: “There was inside opposition, including from bus drivers. They have been ignored, and many have had enough. They formed a bloc and campaigned against millage renewal. I told them that I agreed that something needs to be done to address operational costs and that I would continue to work toward a solution but that I did hope the millages passed.”

Two weeks prior to the millage renewal vote, on October 29, 2021, Nola.com published a piece about St. Tammany school bus drivers being “at the breaking point”; Osborn, who was among those interviewed for the article, provided the “breaking-point” title.

So, what has led to the breaking point?

Allow me to offer the backstory in short order.

Operational pay calculations (i.e., the money paid to drivers for mileage and upkeep of the buses for which they are “owner/operators”) has not been updated since 1986.

In October 2020, a task force focused on the issue of school bus owner-operator expenses held its first meeting, which led to this report in February 2021:

Justification for the task force is as follows:

∙ The compensation schedule, which was last updated for implementation in the 1986 school year, is long overdue for an update reflective of the modern realities of school transportation; and

∙ Commensurate with inflation in the price of gasoline, school bus parts, and mechanical costs, the costs of school bus operation have risen significantly since the schedule was developed; and ∙ Considerations at the time the schedule was created, such as a drastic difference in the cost of operating a bus based on its length, have not come to fruition, and the schedule does not take into consideration that costs from year to year can vary greatly since materials such as tires may be replaced in a given year but may not be replaced again for some time; and

∙ Many school bus operators are being asked to drive for extracurricular activities such as weekend athletic events in addition to their regular school routes, which puts additional wear and tear on the buses; and

∙ Bus operators often retire with a retirement benefit that places them below the federal poverty line, even after decades of service; and

∙ Many school bus operators have expressed an urgent need for the compensation schedule to be studied and for an updated methodology to be developed in order to provide accurate compensation for costs incurred.

A major finding of the task force was that owner-operators were compensated on average $9,200 annually for operational costs but that the actual costs were double that, at $18,400. So, what is needed is a 100-percent increase in operational funding.

The report ends with a number of specific suggestions for the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) to offer written guidance to school systems. This is an important report for gaining insight into the difficulties faced by Louisiana’s owner-operator school bus drivers, and in the 2021 Louisiana legislative session, House Bill 364 was introduced to finally update the 1986 operational pay for Louisiana’s owner-operator school bus drivers.

Despite no update in operational funding in 35 years– and despite the bill being based upon the recommendation of a task force in which St. Tammany’s own transportation supervisor, George Bode, participated– HB 364 bill was defeated in the Louisiana senate on June 07, 2021, including with a “no” vote from senator and St. Tammany resident, Patrick McMath.

Below is an email exchange between McMath and a consituent who is a school bus driver:

Sent: Monday, June 7, 2021 5:21 PM
To: McMath, Sen. Patrick (District Office) <sen11@legis.la.gov>
Subject: HB 364

Mr. McMath,
I am very disappointed that you voted against HB 364, obviously you have no clue how much it cost to operate a school bus. I will be letting all the owner/operators in St Tammany know how you supported us in getting this changed after 35 years. I bet your family could not operate on a pay scale from 1986!

_______

From: McMath, Sen. Patrick (District Office)
Sent: Wednesday, June 9, 2021 12:00 PM
Subject: RE: HB 364

Thank you for reaching out to our office and I apologize for letting you down.

I wanted to share with you how I came to the decision on my vote. Several school board members and the Superintendent were against this bill. It is considered an unfunded mandate and would have cost STPSB $3.4 million. While it is too late for this session, I am willing to author and carry this bill in future session if everyone can come to an agreement on where the $3.4 million would come from.

Thank you,
Senator McMath

So. The St. Tammany school board and the superintendent lobbied against bill. In doing so, they sent the message loud and clear that they were content to leave the burden of serious underpayment for operational costs squarely on the shoulders of the bus drivers.

What a disgusting decision, and foolish. The district is already facing a bus driver shortage, and prior to writing this piece, I had heard talk of frustrated bus drivers heading for retirement. How many will retire in December? What is the district doing to encourage drivers to stay? Any plans to offer any good-faith increase per mile? Any lesson learned from just how close the millage renewal came to failing?

If those with the power to address this issue choose not to, what transportation crisis awaits us come January?

St. Tammany school board and Superintendent Jabbia: You must do something post-haste for the drivers who continue to serve our community despite working a job that is tailspinning many into “a retirement benefit that places them below the federal poverty line, even after decades of service.”

This one is on you.

Value your drivers.

________________________________________________________

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2 Comments
  1. What’s likely to happen is what has happened in many other school systems, including my own about 20 years ago. Contracts are put out for bid and companies like Students First and Durham will take over bus transportation. The school system will pay more, but will convince itself that the administrative efficiency of having only a couple of large, national bus companies to work with justifies that. The individual owner-operators cannot complete and are out of a job. In my particular case, many of them banded together and won a contract as a consortium, but it didn’t last. They couldn’t compete with the national companies.

  2. Clark Gristina permalink

    What’s not being discussed or considered is that many citizens of St Tammany have a perception of wasteful spending by the school board. Huge architects fees, consultants, top heavy administration, etc. We have watched as the millage for the school board (and Sheriff alike) has increasingly consumed our tax bills, leaving little room for anything else. At the same time the rankings for the school system have continued to drop compared to other districts.

    The sales taxes have failed because citizens are fed up, and have little else they can control. Millage renewals are increasingly gerrymandered into wasteful special elections where only the special interest in play can rally their voters, while the general public’s attention is elsewhere (ie: the casino vote).

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