Aug 15, 2023

School bus concerns ripple across Baton Rouge area

The Ascension Parish elementary and middle school kids riding on Renee Bihm's school bus have been leaving red-faced or even had to be awakened from what appeared to be heat-induced sleep during afternoon bus rides home this year.

A bus driver in Ascension public schools for 25 years, Bihm said the heat was bad last year but the record temperatures have made this year "horrible." Water bottles the school system is providing aren't enough to compensate for broiling temperatures in un-airconditioned buses that Bihm compared to riding in a "tin can."

"Yesterday was bad. I thought I was going to die yesterday. I could hardly walk to get off the bus. It was that bad," she said in an interview Saturday.

She recently recorded a temperature of 125 degrees inside her bus.

Ascension is one of a handful of parishes in the Baton Rouge area where bus driver dissatisfaction has been bubbling to the surface in recent years or where school systems looking for drivers have been feeling the effects of a tight job market with rising wages.

The latest federal data show average weekly wages in the Baton Rouge region have risen about 12% between the first quarter of 2020 and the last quarter of 2022. Meanwhile, Louisiana's unemployment rate has hit record lows, 3.4% in July, state data show.

Bihm and some of her Ascension bus driving colleagues have petitioned school officials to begin retrofitting the nearly 290 Ascension school buses that don't have air conditioning. About 40 special education buses already do.

The push in Ascension has been a relatively quiet one — the school system administration is analyzing potentially costly options — and been without the emotional outpourings seen during recent marathon meetings over school transportation in neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish.

There, bus drivers’ dissatisfaction with low pay, record heat and overwork in a chronically under-staffed system has hit a crisis point, disrupting the opening days of school in Louisiana's second-largest traditional public district.

Children have been routinely stranded as they waited for late or nonexistent buses. To get their kids to school, parents have opted to drive their kids or set up impromptu carpool arrangements, some taking time off work to do so.

On Aug. 17, the East Baton Rouge district was paralyzed when more than half of the drivers called in sick, leading to a much-shortened school day. Drivers skipped work just hours after the parish School Board agreed to pay $9,500 in stipends to transportation employees — on top of $3,000 in already approved stipends — but resisted calls from drivers to give them a large permanent pay raise. The drivers are among the lowest paid in the state.

After the sickout, Superintendent Sito Narcisse vowed to return to a more normal school schedule the following Monday, but he was forced to cancel classes that day when cafeteria workers announced they would join the sickout.

On Thursday, more than 500 upset parents and employees packed a special school board meeting — the largest such board gathering in recent memory — that was called to address the crisis. The raucous meeting lasted more than seven hours, ended after midnight and resulted in calls for Narcisse's job and the rejection of his plan to break up the start of elementary, middle and high schools into three tiers.

Currently, about 325 drivers work in the East Baton Rouge system, a district that historically employed more than 500 drivers. About 300 buses are working; another 200 are in need of repair.

In Livingston Parish, the public school system has struggled for the past two academic years to staff its buses with enough qualified drivers.

Last fall, the problem had grown so dire some school administrators were taking the required classes to become certified drivers in an effort to fill the gaps.

Then, several weeks into the 2022-23 school year, roughly 20 bus drivers went on strike, protesting what they characterized as low pay and difficult working conditions.

Bus drivers are paid between about $19,000 and $21,000 annually and many have argued that salary is not enough money to live on; many bus drivers have second jobs.

A recent effort to pass a sales tax that would have provided raises to Livingston school district employees failed, heightening tensions.

Worsening heat in the past few years during the early fall months has exacerbated what drivers have characterized as poor conditions.

As in some other districts, Livingston Parish does not provide air conditioning for its regular buses. The district currently has 42 special education buses, which are equipped with air conditioning.

Despite recent challenges, a spokesperson for Livingston public schools said no major issues have popped up with the bus system so far this year. With more than 550 routes shared among 344 bus drivers, only six remain open.

Several other districts in the region — Assumption, East Feliciana, St. James and West Baton Rouge — reported little to no significant bus problems for the start of this school year.

Even in Ascension, where drivers are lobbying for air-conditioned buses, routes are fully staffed and running, school officials said. Officials credited higher pay, internal leadership programs that better handle drivers' concerns and regular aid in helping new drivers navigate the process of being trained and certified.

Still, bringing in new drivers remains a constant effort, Ascension and some other parishes' officials said.

New St. James Parish Superintendent Chris Kimball, who has been on the job since March after working in leadership posts in the St. Charles and Lafourche parish systems, said finding bus drivers and keeping a school transportation system going is "an issue across not only the state but the nation."

With a new group of drivers nearing completion of training and certification, Kimball said, his district of 3,300 children is about two weeks from have six remaining bus driver openings filled and getting to 100% capacity.

He said eight more drivers are expected to start training afterward to help develop a pool of substitute drivers.

"And then we'll continuously train and continuously advertise because as everyone probably knows, you can never have enough bus drivers that you are having in a training program," Kimball said.

West Baton Rouge Superintendent Chandler Smith said the job of a bus driver is difficult to fill, with split morning and afternoon shifts that don't add up to full-time pay and yet also the special duty of caring for other people's children on the roads twice a day.

"I think it's a lot of responsibility and not everybody wants that," he said.

As in West Baton Rouge and some other school districts, St. James runs its bus system through a contractor and has all air-conditioned buses, officials said.

In Ascension, new Schools Superintendent Edith Walker and her top administrator over transportation, Chad Lynch, have said school officials are evaluating the cost and logistics of retrofitting buses with air-conditioning units and then having the staff or the contractor to handle maintenance.

In a recent interview, Lynch said early estimates pointed to a one-time cost in the several million dollars and a process that could take a few years to implement because of the lack of available vendors locally and the capacity existing vendors have to do the job.

School officials plan a meeting Sept. 19 to lay out what they've been able to determine.

LaTisha Jackson, 44, of Gonzales, has seven children between the ages 5 and 16 who attend Ascension public schools. All ride the bus, she said.

Jackson, a paraprofessional in the schools who rides the system's air-conditioned buses as part of her job, said the hot conditions worry her for her own children and for others'.

"My baby girl, she's 7. She says, 'Momma, it's so hot that I go to sleep every day. The heat gonna make you sleep,'" Jackson said.

Temperatures in Gonzales around after-school bus drop-off times Friday hovered around 99 to 100 degrees, federal weather data show.

David J. Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter, @newsiedave.

Pay, heat lead to strugglesA job 'not everybody wants'A plan in the making