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District-wide bus driver sickout added to St. Tammany Parish education issues

Still, Jabbia called the union out in a frustrated robocall to parents Friday night, which also thanked parents and the drivers who did not call out sick.

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. — Tensions between the St. Tammany Parish School District and its bus drivers boiled over Friday when dozens of drivers called in sick to work.

According to the district, 62 of roughly 398 bus drivers district-wide called in to say they would not be available to take students home.

Parents of students in 14 of the district’s 55 schools received robocalls informing them that their children could be greatly delayed in arriving home if parents could not pick them up from school.

Some waited as long as two hours for their parents to arrive.

Brittney Reese said she was able to leave work to pick up her fifth-grader after she got the call.

“I didn’t really understand, it just said that some bus drivers aren’t running,” said Reese. “So I kind of assumed maybe that’s not their bus. You know their bus is usually… she’s always running. So it took me by surprise.”

The move apparently took the drivers’ own union by surprise, too. Brant Osborn, president of the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees says he and veteran drivers had no idea some members were planning a sick-out.

He said he told Superintendent Frank Jabbia, “This was not sanctioned by the federation. And it was not. We didn’t even know.”

“I hate to hear that families were hurt by this, and I know they were. And it’s extremely frustrating,” said Osborn.

Still, Jabbia called the union out in a frustrated robocall to parents Friday night, which also thanked parents and the drivers who did not call out sick.

“I want everyone to know that we have a collective bargaining agreement with our union, the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees. And Article 18 of that agreement prohibits sick-outs, work stoppages, or strikes because we know that this will directly impact students and families,” Jabbia said in the recording.

The friction between drivers and the district has been building for months. St. Tammany Parish is one of few in the state that owns and operates its own busses. They’re also responsible for maintaining them.

But they say the current operational pay is not sustainable and becoming worse with recent inflation.

“This is not salary, this is… these busses are extraordinarily expensive to maintain. And the state has not raised the operational paytable since 1986,” Osborn said.

Bus drivers say they’re struggling to even replace tires and the district refuses to adequately invest. 

One driver said at the school board meeting Thursday night, “We are working at a failing business. Not because the product, the children, are being picked up or delivered as required, but the income cannot cover the cost.”

The district has offered some stop-gap funds to hold the drivers over until the next union contract bargaining in a few months. But the union maintains that the number -- $1,000 total – is much too low.

Osborn said one pair of bus tires alone is $950 before tax.

While he says there are no plans for a sick-out to continue Monday, he says he doesn’t think this unsanctioned strike helped drivers in the big picture.

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