Bus drivers, school vehicle mechanics and union activists called upon Elk Grove Unified School District officials to raise the pay of school transportation workers. They addressed the issue during the school board’s Sept. 7 meeting.
The speakers argued that the district current salaries for drivers are too low and they stated that pay raises are needed to attract applicants during a time when the district is facing a bus driver shortage and bused students are arriving late to school.
Ralph Niz, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 256, expressed his frustration with his union’s contract negotiations with Elk Grove Unified officials. He told the school board that his members have the option of going on strike.
“Do not force us to go on strike,” Niz said. “(It’s) because the people that matter here are the drivers, the employees of Elk Grove (Unified), and the children above all.”
The school board was legally prohibited from responding during the meeting’s public comment period since the speakers addressed a topic that was not scheduled on the board agenda that night.
Elk Grove Unified spokesperson Xanthi Soriano told the Citizen that the district administration is currently negotiating with the ATU for the past and current school years. Regarding the district’s driver shortage, she said that the district needs 20 bus drivers.
Students returned to full-time learning in-person at their schools when the 2021-22 school year started in July. Their campuses were closed last year due the COVID-19 pandemic, and students took online classes or other forms of distance learning.
During an interview with the Citizen, Niz said that his union also calls for new school buses as well as air conditioners for current buses.
“Our children should not have to be transported in buses without air conditioning, period,” he said. “We will continue to negotiate in faith to resolve these issues, and hopefully we can.”
On Sept. 10, an Elk Grove Unified school board reportedly caught on fire in south Sacramento. Soriano said that the driver made an emergency stop near the corner of South Watt Avenue and Elder Creek Road. There were no students onboard and there were no injuries, she said.
Erin Somers, the president of the EGUSD Parent Coalition, said that the fire incident highlights the need for new buses in Elk Grove Unified.
“We have started to deepen our understanding of the problems facing our bus drivers and the whole transportation department within the EGUSD,” she told the Citizen. “We cannot allow unsafe driving conditions to continue. The district needs to invest its resources in new buses now.”
Her coalition previously campaigned and called upon district officials to reopen campuses for in-person learning.
David Phommavong, an EGUSD Parent Coalition member, expressed his concern over students being picked up late by buses. He told the school board that students have been marked absent for being late to school.
“Some buses are coming half an hour late, some are an hour late,” Phommavong said.
In his speech to the school board, ATU Local 256’s attorney Anthony Booth announced that district administrators rejected several of his union’s proposals during negotiations.
He said that the district is proposing a 4% salary increase for drivers that will last for three years. Booth stated that the drivers’ starting wage of $15.82 an hour is the lowest among school districts in the Sacramento region. The Local 256 is proposing a 20% salary increase, which would push starting salaries to the $18.98 range.
“This is the way we’re going to attract new drivers,” Booth said. “It doesn’t even make us the top paying drivers at this point.”
The attorney and chief negotiator concluded that the best way for the district to solve its driver shortage problem is to increase salaries permanently.
Bus drivers and mechanics shared their hardships when they addressed the school board.
Sylvia Garcia brought her backpack that she uses to carry food and a change of clothing on her school bus when she works every weekday.
“We live out of these backpacks for five days a week,” she said. “We don’t get home to see our kids.”
Garcia also listed the drivers’ responsibilities that include washing the buses, and inspecting locks and brakes. She said that the students are the reason why she remains at her job.
“We sing songs with them, we know their families, we watch them grow up,” Garcia said.
Jackie Williams, a bus driver for the past 20 years, told the trustees that she believes that her work is being taken for granted. She added that it is unfair for bus drivers to be blamed for students arriving late to school while the district has not hired new drivers.
“We want them to come to school on time, we want them to be picked up on time,” Williams said.
Alejandro Fernandez, a school vehicle mechanic of 28 years, asked a question for the district officials.
“We’re doing the job for the district, and we want the district to do the job for us,” he said.