As a school bus driver strike in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, stretches toward its third day, leaving parents scrambling, County Executive Steuart Pittman said he’s angry with the situation and called on the school system to come up with a plan.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 80 bus routes across 38 schools without bus service, because of the job action by the contracted bus drivers.
“To say that I’m angry and upset is an understatement, and it’s not the drivers that I’m angry at,” Pittman said during an online news briefing with reporters Tuesday. “The drivers are at wit’s end at this point.”
Several of the drivers, who work for Annapolis Bus Company, which has a contract with the school system, have stopped showing up for work, demanding better pay and benefits. The strike comes as school systems around the D.C. region face an ongoing driver shortage during the first several weeks of the new school year.
Pittman said school bus drivers are “grossly underpaid,” work long hours and make only $25,000 to $28,000 a year, based on conversations he’s had with several contractor employees.
“We obviously want these drivers back on the job, but this is only part of the problem … We know that these jobs need to pay a livable wage,” Pittman said in a follow-up interview with WTOP.
Pittman said he’s had conversations with several of the bus drivers, who are not organized in a union, as well as school officials and even Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan about ways to keep enough bus drivers on the job to get kids to school.
Part of the problem is that the Anne Arundel County bus drivers are currently locked into long-term, 12-year contracts, the county executive said.
In the short-term, Pittman has suggested using federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act — which has earmarked $120 million for Anne Arundel County Public Schools to support reopening amid the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — to increase bus driver pay.
Long-term pay increases for bus drivers would have to be set aside in the county’s budget request for next year, which Pittman said he supports, calling it a “No. 1 priority” of his administration.
“It’s a fundamental obligation of our school system to get kids to school,” Pittman told WTOP. “We cannot continue. I think it will get worse if we don’t address this.”
The Annapolis Bus Company is one of about 15 companies the school system contracts with to transport students to school.
Pittman said it’s on the school system to put a proposal on the table.
After his media briefing, he showed up at the Anne Arundel County Board of Education meeting, asking to be added to the agenda to address the situation. Board members rebuffed his request, citing a full agenda and the need to discuss details of private contracts in a closed session.
Pittman told WTOP he was “a little surprised” the school board denied his request to speak but, in any case, he continued his call for the school system to take action.
“We know the nature of the problem, we’ve laid out some options to solve it, and we need a proposal from our school system ASAP,” he said.
The plan is necessary not only to encourage striking drivers to return to the job, but also will give drivers who have stayed on the job “faith that things will get better,” Pittman said. “It’s also going to encourage others to apply for these jobs if they know that these jobs are going to pay a livable wage in the future.”
The county executive is set to host a virtual meeting with some of the bus drivers Thursday at 10:30 a.m., which will be streamed on his Facebook page.
As for what parents should expect Wednesday?
“I can’t say that it’s going to be better,” Pittman said, adding, “The only thing I can say, unfortunately, is try to make other plans” for getting kids to school. “It may not be any better tomorrow.”
WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.