Students from Idlewood Elementary School wait for their bus in the 1000 block of Montreal Road in Clarkston on Thursday, April 19, 2018, but it never came. Almost 400 DeKalb County school bus drivers called in sick, in a protest of their pay, retirement benefits and overall treatment. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

DeKalb school bus drivers stage sickout

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green had a stern message for the 400 or so bus drivers who called in sick Thursday: There will be consequences.

They found out quickly how severe, with at least a half dozen drivers confirming late Thursday they had been fired for calling out of work, and apparently being vocal about drivers’ needs.

Drivers called in sick Thursday amid worries that their concerns about pay, retirement benefits and overall treatment were not being heard. Many students had long waits before a bus finally came, and some parents complained on social media that some buses didn’t show at all. The delays also prompted the district to readjust its Georgia Milestones testing schedule, having students complete testing next week.

Officials said they were told the sickout could last through Monday.

“You have willingly put our students in harm’s way,” Green said at a press conference called to address the sickout.

Transportation managers said 383 of the district’s 908 drivers, including substitutes, called in sick Wednesday night and Thursday morning. According to district numbers, the district serves about 66,500 riders on 899 routes at 17,500 bus stops daily. Green said Thursday that district officials learned of the planned sickout several days ago from drivers who did not plan to participate. Joshua Williams, DeKalb Schools’ chief operating officer, said some bus drivers finished their routes Thursday morning and then covered missing coworkers’ routes. City Schools of Decatur bus drivers also provided assistance picking up students, he said. A third-party vendor is on standby if the sickout grows.

Green said any driver not on the job during the sickout will be required to submit a doctor’s note validating missed time. Though notes typically are not required for short illnesses, district officials said the superintendent has the authority to ask for them.

As the school day broke Thursday, groups of DeKalb Schools students found themselves waiting at their stops. District officials said buses operated on a delay of up to 90 minutes.

District officials had warned parents of the sickout via calls and emails Wednesday, telling them students might be delayed but would make it to school.

The drivers, who missed work today citing sicknesses, said they received calls from a man representing the district at the end of the day.

“It was not a reason given for termination,” said Melanie Douglas, who has been a bus driver for 12 years. “He just told me Dr. Green has terminated your job. I’ve been out one day. You’re going to terminate my job with no rhyme or reason?”

Marion Payne said three DeKalb County Schools police officers delivered a termination letter to his Stone Mountain home within the last hour. It said the district received “reliable” information that he encouraged the sickout.

Payne, a driver for five years, said he passed out flyers for the sickout, mostly because he’s standing up for what is right.

“I’m a veteran,” he said. “I’m concerned for all the senior (drivers) ... retiring and getting $210 or $215 a month. But you know how it is, when they think you pose a threat.”

Douglas said she felt she and others were targeted for speaking out at a meeting Tuesday between Green and about 400 drivers.

“Because we have so much mouth on us,” she said, “they want us gone.”

Sheila Bennett, a bus driver representative, said she stayed home because she was feeling under the weather, but agreed district officials could do more for the bus drivers.

“It’s getting redundant,” she said. “We’ve been asking the district to work with us since 2015. The time is up.”

In 2015, drivers lined up to voice concerns to school board members after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported some buses were so overcrowded that students were forced to stand during the ride.

“We’re among the lowest-paid in the district, yet we deliver the most precious cargo of all,” Bennett said then.

Green addressed the shortage then, several months after he arrived at the district, by reconfiguring some routes.

Bennett said Thursday morning about 400 drivers met with district officials Tuesday about a list of demands they have including 6 percent step raises, cost-of-living increases, bonuses and a committee to investigate adverse actions by school administrations against drivers.

For people to say they weren’t aware of driver concerns is ridiculous, she said. “Yes, you were. It’s just too much and it’s gone on for too many years.

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