by Genevieve Demos Kelley
The Prince George’s County Board of Education held its last meeting of the school year on June 14th and adopted—in a 9 to 4 vote—a $1.93 billion Annual Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Dissenting votes were cast by Edward Burroughs III, Beverly Anderson, Verjeana Jacobs, and Zabrina Epps.
The budget was significantly smaller than the $2 billion that the Board had requested from the County Executive in February. Dozens of cuts were made during the budget reconciliation process, including the $1.27 million proposal to hire 25 additional bus drivers for the 2016-2017 school year.
While the issue of bus transportation was by no means the only topic of the evening, it got plenty of attention from parents, students, Board members, and PGCPS employees. Here are some highlights of the transportation-related comments made during the meeting.
During the Public Comment portion:
A parent at 49:34 in the video of the meeting:
I was disappointed to see that the additional 25 bus drivers were cut in the reconciliation budget. The ongoing shortage of bus drivers has led to doubled-up routes, significant delays, and even the inability to answer the transportation hotline in the morning, because staff are needed to drive . . . Without the additional drivers, I sincerely hope that the transportation department is spending the summer looking for a more efficient way to get students where they need to be, because what we have now is not working well. Students cannot learn if they cannot get to school.
A Northwestern High student representing the Hyattsville Teen Advisory Committee at 1:11:17 (this is a must-watch testimony):
We did some research to find out what was causing the problem of late school buses, and we found two causes: poor pay and poor working conditions [boisterous applause from audience]. . . [Bus drivers] are often disrespected by students on the bus, and students say that they don’t even know their bus drivers’ names. We recommend that all schools include bus drivers in their orientation at the beginning of the year, and the principal introduce the bus drivers to students and review the rules and consequences for riding the bus [more applause from audience]. We recommend that the school board pass a bus driver appreciation day for the district to honor and recognize the work of bus drivers who support our students and their schools.
Jossalyn Ford, chief steward for the Transportation Chapter of Local 2250 bus driver at 1:17:26:
We work very hard every day to transport the children who attend Prince George’s County Public Schools to and from safely. As we approach the end of the year, we are short of help. As you have very well know that we are doubling, tripling runs. We are tired. We’re doing our very best to transport these kids every single day. But as we do so, we have bus attendants also working with us who have been waiting two or more years to become permanent, to have benefits. HR keeps saying, ‘We don’t have the positions.’ They don’t have the money to hire these people. . . And we, as a local, can’t defend a sub-employee . . . But I’m telling you right now, we cannot go into next year doing what we’re doing this year. . . We have meetings on a month-to-month basis, where we come together and try to address all these issues, and nothing is being done.
A parent at 1:25:16:
I’m mom of a third grader at Tulip Grove Elementary, and for the past several weeks, we’ve been experiencing inconsistent and unreliable bus pickups in the morning. In particular, because of the doubling up on the routes and the tripling up on the routes, you know, sometimes it will be fifteen to thirty minutes before the children are picked up to go to school. We’ve had occasions when the bus just hasn’t appeared . . . [W]e could use some communication in some way shape or form, some kind of system in place that could notify parents of an issue, if a bus is going to be late, if a bus is not going to arrive. I’m thinking something similar to bus ETA, like what WMATA uses, something like that. Where we can have warning of notice of a late arrival time . . .If we know, as parent, what’s happening, what to expect, we can make other plans to get our children to school and to get ourselves to work on time. . . I would really urge you to reconsider the staffing levels for bus drivers, because we need to get these kids to school, rather than leave them standing out on the corner for 30 minutes in the morning.
During the Budget Consent Agenda Discussion:
Board member Verjeana Jacobs’s comments at 1:35:03 regarding the value of hiring additional bus drivers vs. adding Lacrosse as a varsity sport:
It’s really disheartening that our employees, bus drivers included, have gone years without adequate funding in the budget, and every year we expect them to just accept that we don’t have money, and it’s just not acceptable . . . A lot of people in my district [District 5], let’s just be clear, love lacrosse. And I do too. But not at the expense of bus drivers who have to get our kids safe here every day, and not at the expense of class size, math specialists, and reading specialists.
Verjeana Jacobs’s question at 1:52:30:
In light of the extreme difficulties we had this year around transportation and routes, what is the plan to get kids to school on time, considering . . . what was told to us was that the fix was we specifically needed at least 25 more bus drivers to make it happen. And now if that’s not on the table, then what is it?
Dr. Monica Goldson, Chief Operating Officer, addresses the question at 1:52:56:
. . . [W]e looked at ways that we could make some changes internally. So for the lack of 25 drivers, we looked at decreasing the number of routes. For those people who are being trained, assigning them a mentor to help them through that process. Because when applicants apply, they don’t all have a CDL license. It takes about two weeks to go through the training process, and sometimes when they start the process they don’t always finish. So we will provide a mentor to two to three people who apply for those positions. And lastly, some of those routes . . . don’t have a driver because of disciplinary actions. So actually looking at streamlining the process, so that when drivers are pulled from routes, waiting for their loudermill or disciplinary hearing, to reduce the amount of time, so that we can provide them their consequence and get them back on the road.
Ms. Jacobs and Dr. Goldson continue the conversation through 1:56:04.
“Sound Off: School Bus Troubles,” Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools
“Buses Running Up to 40 Minutes Late at Prince George’s County Middle School,” Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools