District-wide bus driver illness adds to education issues in St. Tammany Parish

Still, Jabbia called the union in a frustrated robocall to parents Friday night, which also thanked parents and drivers who didn’t call in sick.

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, Louisiana — Tensions between the St. Tammany Parish School District and its bus drivers escalated Friday when dozens of drivers called in sick for work.

According to the district, 62 of the district’s approximately 398 bus drivers called to say they would not be available to drive students home.

Parents of students at 14 of the district’s 55 schools received robocalls advising them that their children could be significantly delayed arriving home if parents were unable to pick them up from school.

Some waited up to two hours for their parents to arrive.

Brittney Reese said she was able to leave work to pick up her fifth-grade student after receiving the call.

“I didn’t really get it, it just said some bus drivers don’t run,” Reese said. “So I kind of assumed that maybe it wasn’t their bus. You know their bus is usually…it’s always running. So that took me by surprise.”

The move apparently also took the drivers’ own union by surprise. Brant Osborn, president of the St. Tammany School Teachers and Employees Federation, said he and the veteran drivers had no idea some members were anticipating illness.

He said he told Superintendent Frank Jabbia: “It was not sanctioned by the federation. And it wasn’t. We didn’t even know.

“I hate to hear that families have been hurt by this, and I know they have been. And it’s extremely frustrating,” Osborn said.

Still, Jabbia called the union in a frustrated robocall to parents Friday night, which also thanked parents and drivers who didn’t call in sick.

“I want everyone to know that we have a collective agreement with our union, the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees. And article 18 of this agreement prohibits work stoppages or strikes because we know it will directly impact students and families,” Jabbia said in the recording.

Friction between the drivers and the neighborhood has been building up for months. St. Tammany Parish is one of the few in the state that owns and operates its own buses. They are also responsible for their upkeep.

But they say current operating compensation is unsustainable and worsening with recent inflation.

“It’s not a salary, it’s…these buses are extremely expensive to maintain. And the state hasn’t increased the table of operational payments since 1986,” Osborn said.

Bus drivers say they are struggling to replace even the tires and the district refuses to invest adequately.

A driver said at the school board meeting on Thursday evening: ‘We work in a struggling business. Not because the product, the children, are picked up or delivered as needed, but the income cannot cover the cost.

The district has offered interim funds to retain drivers until the next collective agreement negotiation in a few months. But the union maintains that the number – $1,000 in total – is far too low.

Osborn said a single pair of bus tires costs $950 before taxes.

While he says a work stoppage is not expected to continue on Monday, he says he doesn’t think the unauthorized strike has helped drivers as a whole.

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