UniteGPS – We may have jumped the gun the other day when covering a story about Bayou State senators pursuing fresh legislation to increase wages for Louisiana bus drivers.
Originally we reported that Senate Bill 57 drafted by Louisiana Senator Patrick McMath would increase the compensation rate for miles driven based on the number of passengers. According to Brooke Thorington from the Louisiana Radio Network, this would mean that bus drivers transporting 48 passengers or less would earn $1.47 per mile while those with over 48 passengers would make $1.76 per mile.
However, the UniteGPS team investigated this further by speaking with transportation expert Dave Schultz. Before he retired, he worked with Lousiana parishes for years as a school transportation consultant, hired to streamline entire departments. Based on our conversation, it appears as though our original news source had it all wrong.
“The way that people are writing this up is that they’re leaving out a couple of important factors,” said Schultz, who is currently retired and living in Houston. “First of all, it’s not all bus drivers. It’s only those that are owner-operators and they’re very much in the minority.”
In other words, the Louisiana Radio Network published a hasty generalization, and we fell for it. In turn, we learned some very interesting new information about how Louisiana school transportation functions. Let’s step back for a moment to break down the state’s elusive owner-operator system.
Louisiana bus drivers and owner-operators
According to Schultz, what news sources have so far failed to mention about Senate Bill 57 is that this increase only applies to owner-operators. What’s more, owner-operator bus drivers don’t earn wages purely off of mileage, as insinuated in the Louisiana Radio Network article.
Not mentioned is these indirect employees for their parish also earn reimbursements for bus maintenance and stipends that have reportedly seen adjustments over the years. For Schultz, Senate Bill 57 shows that Louisiana bus drivers working as owner-operators are still trying to “hang on” to a career that was once the highest-paid position in many school districts.
Prior to legal changes in 2012, Schultz told UniteGPS that certain Louisiana school districts were actually spending more on bus transportation personnel than they were on the actual schools.
So, in 2012, school districts in Louisiana hired Schultz and his team to politely intervene and optimize student transportation. Back when owner-operator models were more common and popular across the state, it concerned him that school districts originally had little supervision over their bus drivers or any knowledge about optimizing routes.
“When I came on the scene, they just kept adding on more routes, because they really didn’t know what the drivers were doing. There was no central transportation director who even knew what the drivers were doing.”
History of owner-operator bus drivers in Louisiana
At the core of Schultz’s assignment was to improve lackluster operations. Not only did this include mobilizing the driver staff but also organizing student route assignments, proper bus stop location, as well as approximate pick-up and drop-off times.
Another vital task was figuring out which drivers were responsible for transporting students because it was frankly unpredictable. That’s to say, absolutely no oversite. In the process of charting bus routes and accessing ad-hoc student assignments, Schultz began to uncover what he considers blatant corruption.
“Drivers never missed a day, ever. But they did sometimes just call parents up and say, ‘I’m not running today, get your own kids at school.’ It just happened that way and everybody just accepted it, saying, ‘Okay, the bus driver’s not coming today, maybe one of the other bus drivers would help cover him or whatever.’ But believe me, the bus drivers got paid for that day because they didn’t tell anybody that they called out and weren’t driving. They just put it in their sheet and got paid for the day anyway.”
Slowly but surely, Schultz also uncovered another issue involving students being used as pawns to increase mileage for owner-operator school bus drivers.
“What we started to find is that some of these guys had designed their routes to go all over, with the most miles that they could possibly put on. Then the number of times kids were sitting on board a bus so that (the drivers) could get more miles was absolutely unconscionable.”
Let alone the conditions.
“Once you saw how awful this was, and some of the conditions that the kids were being transported under, it was just unconscionable.
Rebellion and insurrection
Requiring one whole school year, Schultz eventually succeeded in his mission, consolidating eight routes down to six. He also managed to reduce the average student riding time to one hour and 10 minutes in each direction per kid to a solid 45 minutes. Such milestones, however, didn’t come without backlash from the drivers.
“Oh, gosh, we had a rebellion and an insurrection.”
According to Schultz, “the drivers were going berserk,” accusing him of “stealing money off their table” and that they won’t be able to make a living under his reforms. In response to such accusations, Schultz encouraged bus drivers to communicate their concerns with the board and put the students’ needs ahead of their own, stressing the expenses falling on the shoulders of the community and parish.
In the end, many owner-operator bus drivers unpleased with the reforms decided to retire, and many were replaced by contractors. Schultz stressed to UniteGPS that none of them were forced-out.