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Driver shortage + power failures = tumultuous school days

On Thursday afternoon at Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School — the second day of a district-wide bus driver shortage that has left schools and parents scrambling  — teacher Cierra Boyce was exasperated. 

“It was extremely hectic. As I was subbing for a teacher, I had to contact the entire class’s parents and explain what was going on. It didn’t help that when the district reached out to the parents about the bussing they did not fully explain the truth or why they didn’t have enough bus drivers,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, Durham Public Schools announced a shortage of bus drivers, and asked parents to transport their children to school themselves on Thursday for the second day in a row.

“We regret to inform you that due to an ongoing bus driver shortage, we are facing challenges in providing transportation for our students tomorrow, Thursday, January 18,” the statement reads. “In light of this situation, we kindly request your support in transporting your children to and from school for the day. We understand the inconvenience this may cause and sincerely apologize for any disruption to your routine.”

The shortage of bus drivers follows a district-wide payment dispute.

In October, 1,300 Durham Public Schools classified workers — including instructional assistants, cafeteria workers and more — received emails detailing their new, increased salaries. According to the Durham Association of Educators, the elating news prompted many of the district’s workers to quit their second jobs and adjust their monthly budgets. Then, last Friday, these workers received new emails: a policy change. The district revealed that they would no longer “be counting relevant years of experience in the private sector or working outside of North Carolina,” according to the Durham Association of Educators. The pay dispute has resulted in a labor strike by the district’s bus drivers.

Durham Public Schools issued a statement Thursday saying the district is “engaged in an active investigation regarding the implementation of the salary study.” DPS officials declined to comment further about the salary study “due to the sensitive and critical nature of this matter.” 

Boyce finds the district’s payment backslide disturbing. “There have been a lot of issues with payroll…., and that is putting more of a financial strain on a lot of people,” Boyce said. “And they did it with no notice. So it was really upsetting.”

Thursday was the second day in a row of chaos for local students and parents. 

Club Boulevard parent Jackie Melvin arrived at the school to pick up her son on Thursday, pulling into the school’s unusually calm parking lot.

“It’s crazy,” Melvin said. “I am not really affected, my son is a car rider, but I’ve seen the messages telling people that they need to pick their kids up because there are no buses coming.” After school on Wednesday only one bus arrived to pick up the departing children, Melvin said. “It is surprising.”

The bus driver situation arrives on top of other Durham school closures due to power outages. Six Durham elementary schools and Middle College at Durham Technical Community College were closed Thursday due to power outages. “My coworkers, they are still in high school, they didn’t go to school today,” said a woman who was picking up a child after school at Club Boulevard on Thursday afternoon. “They had no power, no water, and no transportation. They had to stay home in the cold.” 

On January 25, the Durham Association of Educators will host a rally outside of the Board of Education building prior to the next school board meeting. 

“We know that the only way to win real changes is for a majority of us to unite and take massive actions that demonstrate our power,” said a statement from the Durham Association of Educators. 

DPS spokesperson Crystal Roberts said the school system is not anticipating bus shortages again on Monday but will inform parents should that change. 

Jon Kuperschmid