Both sides made their case

Published 9:58 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Many Suffolk students received an unexpected couple of days of vacation during the past week, courtesy of the leadership vacuum in Suffolk Public Schools.

When the school system’s bus drivers were unsatisfied with raises that had been proposed in the 2017-2018 budget, they decided to make a point about how badly their services are needed by staging a “sick-out.” In a system that already struggles to fill bus drivers’ positions and already has to run multiple runs with many of its buses, the point proved a painful one.

On Friday, half the city’s 135 drivers took the day off, causing a meltdown within the school system. Nearly a third of Suffolk’s public school students were absent that day, and social media was full of reports of classrooms that were nearly empty.

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On Monday, just shy of one-fourth of the system’s drivers called in sick, and 1,481 of its 14,177 students were absent. That’s about 600 more student absences than on a normal Monday, school officials said. That’s a lot of absences at a time of year when students really need to be in class.

Bus drivers have a hard job, and it’s a vitally important one, as the safety of thousands of Suffolk students depends on them each day, not to mention the timely delivery of those students to schools and back home. Nobody argues that they do not earn their pay, but, faced with the impression that their duties were being taken too lightly by SPS administration, their “sick-out” was a last-ditch effort to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, drivers have had pay increases, according to school system officials, in all but three of the past 25 years. Those increases have not always covered the costs of retirement contributions or health care plan increases, but the simple fact is that most part-time positions do not even offer such benefits. That Suffolk’s bus drivers have access to them at all is a very big deal, and it costs city taxpayers quite a lot of money to provide those benefits.

To their credit, school system administrators have responded to the “sick-out” by promising an array of bonuses for good attendance — $1,000 next year for drivers who miss 10 days or fewer during the school year is another perk that most part-time employees do not receive.

The school system also responded to the crisis by taking a leadership position and asserting the school system’s rights. Drivers who called in sick on Friday and Monday will be required to provide a doctor’s note, and those whose leave time is denied will be responsible for the cost of hiring a substitute for their routes.

Both sides have made their cases. It’s time to move on. Drivers and the administration should meet and hash out their differences in a mutually respectful manner. In the meantime, parents with children who ride the buses to school have a right to expect that their kids will get there tomorrow and for the rest of the school year.