The Brick Township school board voted Thursday night to delay a plan to lay off 26 school bus drivers during a meeting that lasted more than six hours into early Friday morning.
One-by-one, school bus drivers and union leaders addressed the board, describing a chaotic working environment and severe management issues that visibly took board members by surprise, culminating in the vote to delay the layoffs while policies in the Transportation Department can be reviewed and additional negotiations can be undertaken with the Transport Workers Union, which represents the drivers.
Putting off the layoffs could backfire, however, if the district does not find a way to save more than $400,000 since the district has already adopted its budget for the 2015-16 school year, which factored in savings based on the layoffs.
The board “anticipated those cost savings,” said board attorney Jack Sahradnik. “One of the issues you have is, if the decision is not to go forward with a reduction in force, then you’re going to have to look at where you’re going to come up with the money to fund it. At some point during the course of the year, if money is not available, you’re going to run out of money for your transportation services.”
Brick has budgeted $8,048,580 for transportation services for next school year, a reduction of $437,659 from the 2014-15 school year. The savings through layoffs would be achieved primarily by reducing health benefits costs rather than salaries. While school bus drivers main earn about $25,000 per year, they are entitled to what is widely considered a generous health care benefits package.
Bus drivers made a forceful showing at the meeting, packing the auditorium at Brick Township High School and detailing inefficiencies stemming from dispatching to a lack of substitute bus drivers. Most of all, the drivers spoke of how much they care for the children of the township and the sense of community they say would be lost if the township were to privatize its routes.
Drivers carried signs that read, “Keep Our Children Safe, Keep Our Tax Dollars Here,” and “Privatization Works for Profit, Public Employees Work For You!” Another sign said, “Where’s Your Friend the Bus Driver? I Don’t Know, Mommy.”
District officials, however, clarified their layoff plan and said they would not be privatizing transportation service. The reduction in force would not mean the drivers would have to be replaced – new routing would allow a smaller number of drivers to efficiently bring children to and from school.
The plan to lay off drivers was conceived after the district commissioned a report from Transportation Advisory Services, a New York consulting firm, to review the department.
“One of the things they said needed to be addressed was ridership and that we weren’t efficient in it,” explained Interim Superintendent Richard Caldes. “It had been a long time since those routes had been looked at.”
That fact, combined with declining enrollment in the district, resulted in the plan. Board members also said there were reports of rampant absenteeism among drivers, though the drivers themselves disputed that allegation and said the district was relying too heavily on part-time “cover drivers” who sometimes show up for work and sometimes do not.
Board member Susan Suter said she declined to even vote on the 2015-16 budget because she did not have enough information on the document, including transportation issues. Board member John Barton also said he was unaware of the layoffs, which were listed deep within the 932 page budget document.
That led board member Michael Conti to make the motion to put off the layoffs for two weeks while the entire issue can be re-examined.
“I think we should take a measured approach to this, especially with all that has been going on in the district,” Conti said, adding that the arrest of former superintendent Walter Uszenski led him to question the layoff recommendation, which came from the former schools chief.
“I think this was an ill-conceived plan from the start,” said John Menshon, president of Transport Workers Union Local 225 Branch 4, which represents the drivers. “We even heard board members say that they were surprised, and they didn’t know these cuts were hidden somewhere in the budget. Nobody had discussions with us, we were blindsided with this.”
Ann Morgan, a driver in the district, said there are six bus runs per day that have no drivers even assigned , meaning the work must be split up between other drivers.
“Then people retired, and they never replaced them,” Morgan said. “How much can we do? We’re doing two and three runs a day.”
“We grew up with our bus drivers. We’ve known them since elementary school,” said Taylor Baile, a junior at Brick Memorial High School. “They’re not only our drivers, but in a sense they’re our friends. They’re the first people we see in the morning and the last people we see in the afternoon. They’re not only our drivers but our neighbors.”
Board President Sharon Cantillo said the goal of the board was to avoid a tax increase for the 2015-16 school year without cutting programs for students. Data she and other board members received indicated a significantly absenteeism issue in the department, Cantillo said.
“If every driver came to work, we could cut at least 29 drivers,” Cantillo said, referring to the report.
There may be room for negotiation and savings while limiting layoffs, said James Edwards, the district’s business administrator.
What was originally a plan to lay off 31 drivers has already been reduced to 26, he said, and if the district’s in-house drivers can make runs to private and county schools at a cheaper rate than services provided by the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission, another seven jobs would be saved, reducing the number of layoffs to 19. Edwards said the district is required by law to inquire as to whether MOESC can provide transportation services at a lower rate.
Still, the district must account for the reduction in the transportation budget.
“Every time slot during the day, there are anywhere between 19 and 20 covers, where drivers do not have specific assignments,” Edwards said. “If you look at that in a consolidation effort, at any time during the day we have 19 to 20 drivers being paid for full-time substituting.”
Cantillo said district officials are planning to meet again with the TWU next Wednesday to continue negotiations and attempt to avert layoffs. Regardless, officials said, the district’s busing will remain in-house.
“We’re not going out to a public bid advertising privatization,” Edwards said.
The vote to delay the layoff plan was approved unanimously by the board.