It was early Sunday evening when Calvert public school administrators revealed that the continually vexing bus driver shortage was about to become a bigger problem.
The action by bus drivers in Calvert on Monday and Tuesday was similar to a work stoppage that began in Anne Arundel County last week, as several drivers called in sick.
The director of transportation for Calvert public school system told Southern Maryland News Monday afternoon that over 20 buses did not pick up and deliver students during the morning run, making good on a vow that was delivered to administrators over the weekend.
Ed Cassidy said, “An enormous number of parents” drove children to school Monday morning.
Calvert’s driver walk-off may have been sparked by an issue referred to in a letter to the editor that ran in Southern Maryland News last Friday. The letter, submitted by driver Tom Alexander of Huntingtown, stated that “the county dropped funding for our $25,000 life insurance plan that we’ve had for many years. We were informed of this at the beginning of the school year and at a time when we were already critically short of bus drivers.”
In an email to Calvert public school parents on Sunday, Superintendent Daniel Curry said his office was advised the drivers calling in sick did so “in an effort to draw attention to their challenges with pay and benefits. We want you to know they are not school employees but employees of local bus contractors and they have not asked for meetings with the Calvert County schools’ leadership team and, in fact, we have a meeting scheduled for driver on Friday, Oct. 15, when there is no school.”
Both Curry and Cassidy confirmed that nine of the buses off the road Monday regularly transport students with special needs. Some of the idle drivers had doctors’ notes and one reported a death in the family.
“The central region of the county was most affected, about eight out of 24 schools,” Curry told Southern Maryland News in an email Monday afternoon.
Cassidy said aggrieved bus drivers will have an opportunity to address their concerns to school officials during the Oct. 15 meeting, which was organized this past weekend. That meeting will start at 11 a.m. at Huntingtown High School.
“Calvert County public schools doesn’t know what contractors tell drivers,” Cassidy said.
In addition, the school system’s annual meeting between the executive board and the bus contractors is scheduled for later this month. The session is held as part of the board of education’s annual budget process.
Bus drivers and their supporters gathered in front of public schools’ headquarters on Monday and Tuesday, when some buses again did not pick up students. The drivers returned to their buses on Wednesday morning but also returned to the central office on Dares Beach Road after their runs to continue waving signs at passing traffic.
Some drivers admitted it may be time for them to organize into a union in order to obtain more leverage going forward.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” said Port Republic area bus driver Karen Pitcher. “We got divided and we fell.”
“We are more than drivers,” said Terry Purner, who drives a school bus in the Huntingtown area. “We’re counselors.”
Southern Maryland News obtained a copy of a letter Anthony V. Navarro, the school system’s executive director of administration, sent to Bowie Downs, president of the county’s bus contractors association, this past June. The missive reveals school administrators received a request from the contractors’ association to increase the school system’s contribution to the association’s benefit trust from $2,714 per contracted route to $3,500 per contracted route during fiscal 2022.
Navarro noted in the letter local bus contractor association representatives “reported that without additional funding it may be necessary to discontinue the benefit trust, thereby leaving school bus drivers no option to secure insurance coverage through their employer.”
He also noted that St. Mary’s County “has a similar benefit trust arrangement between the bus contractors and the public school system.”
Navarro pointed out in the letter that both benefit trusts provide health, dental and vision insurance.
“The St. Mary’s County benefit trust does not include life insurance for route drivers,” Navarro stated in the June letter. “St. Mary’s County Public Schools pays an annual contribution of $1,900 per contracted route.”
Navarro concluded his letter to the bus contractors association president by stating Calvert public schools’ officials “will commit to a one-time infusion of $45,600” to the benefit trust for only fiscal 2022. “This amount is based on the current number of contracted routes and may increase/decrease if the number of contracted routes changes.”
Navarro encouraged the school bus contractors association “to explore options for maintaining the solvency” of the benefit trust.
Fueled by boxes of hot coffee and pizza, the bus drivers stood firm with their signs of protest Tuesday.
While some said they were planning to attend the board of education’s Thursday meeting, with public comment limited to only 10 speakers, many indicated they would wait for the Oct. 15 meeting with administrators to sound off.
Public school officials in Charles County told Southern Maryland News they were monitoring the situation in neighboring counties, but the district was not aware of any potential work stoppages by its own bus drivers.
According to Bradley Snow, director of transportation for Charles public schools, he and other administrators were scheduled to meet with bus contractors this week.
Jeff Thompson, St. Mary’s public schools’ transportation director, said the system is still using substitute drivers and is looking to hire more drivers.
“We have some issues with coverage, but we’re managing day by day,” he said, adding that they make adjustments as needed. “On some occasions, we have to ‘double up,’” which can have an impact of up to 15 minutes on timeliness of routes due to more students being on a bus.
Staff writers Darryl Kinsey Jr. and Caleb M. Soptelean contributed to this report. Twitter: @MartySoMdNews