“There was this man sitting up looking at me,” Powell said. “I don’t know what he was doing on the bus.”
In her rush to get off the bus, Powell, who had her left hip replaced in June and her right hip replaced in September last year, injured herself.
“My right leg went out from under me,” she said. “I would have fallen if some bus drivers hadn’t caught me.”
She said the pain in her groin was excruciating. She sat at home for two days before getting to see the workers compensation doctor that Thursday.
When Powell turned in her time sheet with 10 hours and five minutes for the Monday and Thursday that week, she said her supervisor, Juanita Gray, put a line through it and reduced her hours to the one hour and five minutes that she spent in the parking lot that morning.
She said she was paid for the rest of her hours with her sick days.
“I don’t think that is fair,” said Powell, a 13-year bus operator who drives students to and from Allgood Elementary, Freedom Middle and Clarkston High schools.
Powell also was surprised that her supervisor changed her time sheet instead of talking to her and requesting that she make the change.
On Aug. 27, Powell and 350 other bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians packed a large meeting room at the Sanford Center in Decatur to talk about a litany of grievances with the DeKalb School District.
During the meeting called by the Watchdog Organizing Reforming Coalition, a community activist group, the school employees complained about poor working conditions, pay cuts, tampering with their time sheets, safety issues, elimination of bus monitors from buses transporting special needs children, overcrowded buses, poor communication, lack of allowance for drivers with special needs, and threats of privatization from the district.
School Board member Donna Edler and District 6 board member-elect Melvin Johnson were in attendance.
Edler said she was impressed with the large turnout.
“I am so moved that in short order we can come together and listen to and hear your concerns,” she said, promising to take them back to her colleagues on the board.
Johnson said that before he retired from the school district, he was a deputy superintendent in charge of transportation.
“I am here to assist and improve student achievement, and bus drivers, teachers, custodians and cafeteria workers are part of that delivery system,” he said. “I pledge to work with you.”
DeKalb School District employees are represented by the Organization of DeKalb Educators, an affiliate of the Georgia Association of Educators and teachers union the National Education Association.
Because Georgia is a right-to-work state, school employees cannot have collective bargaining agreements, but ODE’s president, David Schutten, said ODE negotiates on behalf of its members because of the relationship it has built with the school district.
Because Georgia is a right-to-work state, school employees cannot have collective bargaining agreements, but ODE’s president, David Schutten, said it negotiates on behalf of its members because of the relationship it has built with the school district.
ODE represents 3,500 DeKalb School System employees, including teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, cafeteria workers and administrators. It is Georgia’s largest teachers organization. Members pay $600 a year to join and their dues are collected by the school district through payroll deductions.
Joel Edwards, one of the organizers of Monday’s meeting, said the WORC invited Schutten to the meeting but that he declined to attend.
“He said it was trap,” Edwards told the meeting. “How can it be a trap if all his members are here. He must be scared of something.”
Schutten said Edwards only told part of their conversation.
He said he had never met Edwards and didn’t know who he was and asked to meet with him ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Schutten said Edwards refused.
“How can I meet with someone I know nothing about?” Schutten said.
‘There is a lot of frustration’
Gloria Acker, who has been driving a DeKalb Schools bus for 23 years, got up at the meeting to say she heard that the bus drivers are going to get a 6.5 percent pay cut on Sept. 13.
“Why are they constantly getting raises and we are getting deductions?” she asked. “How come they deserve raises and we don’t.”
She said that the district doesn’t tell drivers what is happening.
“They post everything on the Web site and a lot of us are not Internet-savvy,” she said.
The bus drivers also said they haven’t received a pay raise in seven years and now have to pay 100 percent for their health and dental insurance. They also said that they heard that School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson had received a bonus.
As part of its austerity measures to balance its $760 million 2012-2013 budget, the district eliminated health and dental insurance subsidies for all employees.
Schutten said bus drivers, like teachers and administrators, now have to pay $51.59 – $35.47 for health insurance and $16.02 for dental – monthly.
“Everybody has to pay that amount,” he said. “It’s not just the bus drivers.”
Mary Powell, a 15-year bus driver, also rushed to her feet.
“They are going to cut our money same like they did to our insurance,” she said. “Everybody is fed up. We need a union tonight.”
The room erupted in cheers.
Richard Johnson, who has been driving a school bus for five years, said School Board members and the superintendent also should share the burdens.
“If they care about the kids, why don’t they take a pay cut too,” he said.
Schutten said that ODE is aware of some of the issues facing the bus drivers and that they met with school district transportation director Daniel Drake on Aug. 23 to discuss some payroll issues and to request that drivers be given updated handbooks outlining all policies and procedures.
He said that last year ODE had complaints about time sheet tampering but that he hasn’t had any complains from members about that this school year.
Schutten said ODE represents about 300 of the district’s nearly 900 school bus drivers who pay dues.
Schutten said he wasn’t surprised to hear that more than 320 people attended the WORC meeting.
“There is a lot of frustration because of the severe budget situation facing the district,” he said. “It’s been causing problems. This situation has been years in the making. Nobody is being insensitive. There is a limited amount of dollars to go around.”
School Board Chairman Eugene Walker said that the district has procedures for handling grievances and that the bus drivers need to use them.
“They have to be documented,” he said. “If anybody is messing with their time cards, they have to report it. That is against the law.”
Walker said that everybody is taking a hit because of the financial problems facing the district but that talk of a 6.5 percent pay cut for bus drivers is just not true.
“They have a reduction from 180 days to 178 days,” he said. “That’s a 1.1 percent decrease in pay.”
Walker said the disaffection shows that the district has a serious communication problem with its employees, which it needs to fix.
He said that he understands that the lowest-paid workers would be the hardest hit by the cuts in pay and benefits.
“That is why I fought the health insurance cuts so hard,” he said. “I regret that they have to pay for health and dental, but we have some tremendous hits at the local levels. We are not singling out transportation workers. The intent is not to do them harm. Everybody is being impacted.”
Treatment of workers
To questions from the audience about how to form a union “tomorrow,” Edwards said he didn’t want to talk about forming a union at that meeting. He said that they were researching ODE’s role and how to proceed and that another meeting would be called later.
Edwards said the school district does not treat bus drivers right.
“They call bus operators, mechanics, cafeteria workers and custodians the lower echelon,” he said. “But you are just as important and they got to treat you fairly.”
Edwards told the meeting that he understands that DeKalb County is in a financial crisis, but it can’t mistreat employees.
“They can’t scratch out your time sheets,” he said. “That’s a wage and hour dispute.”
Edwards, who said he retired from MARTA after 28 years, said he got involved because a school bus driver called him to say he was removed from driving because of mental issues.
“Come to find out that this individual who removed him was not a doctor and there had been no medical evaluation,” Edwards said. “This man was Bus Driver for the Year and had been working for nine years. They had padded his record with ‘he said, she said.’”
Edwards said the man, whom he did not identify, got his job back.
Edwards said he was mentored by late civil rights activists James Orange and Hosea Williams and that workers rights and civil rights go hand in hand.
“DeKalb County jumped on animal rights, but your problems are put on the back burner,” he said.
He told the workers to stand tall and protect their co-workers “whether they like them or not” and to document everything, especially issues of safety.
“If you walk around with their backs bent, somebody will ride you,” he said. “No one can ride you if you stand up.”
William Pringle, another WORC community advocate who retired from MARTA after 30 years, told the crowd that God has already given them victory but that they also have to get involved on their own behalf.
“How many of you go to the School Board meeting where they are making the decisions that affect you?” he asked. “If you come and ask me for my vote, I am going to hold you accountable.”
Pringle said he is advocating for the children and told the crowd that they will get their union if they get on one accord.
“The first person our children see in the mornings is the bus driver,” he said. “You have got to start locking hands. You can’t be afraid.”
Annette Davis Jackson, who calls herself an education community advocate, said Georgia is a right-to-work state.
“Can we change that?” she asked.
“Yes,” the crowd roared back.
After the meeting, Schutten said a number of cafeteria workers and custodians called him to say that they didn’t want to be a part of what the WORC was doing.
“We have had a flurry of requests for application forms,” he said.