Apr. 15—Transportation employees of the Kokomo School Corporation are asking the district's school board to reconsider its vote last month against the drivers' effort to unionize.
Last month, the school board voted 5-2 against voluntarily recognizing the employees as part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), citing the legal opinion of their attorney. The minutes of the March 1 board meeting state the decision was made so the board could "focus on the district's mission to service students, and a desire to retain the Board's legal authority." Board members Lewis Hall and Charley Hinkle voted in favor of recognizing the unionization effort.
The board, however, did not allow the public to see the legal document board attorney Michelle Cooper wrote, citing "attorney to school board communication" privilege.
But even with last month's "no" vote, the momentum behind the unionization effort is not going away.
In fact, both the maintenance and custodian employees have joined the bus drivers' efforts.
According to a press release sent Wednesday from AFSCME Council 962, more than 80% of KSC custodial and maintenance workers have signed cards authorizing the union to represent them in collective bargaining.
"They are facing workplace issues, ranging from understaffing and low pay, to basic dignity and respect," the release states. "In the past, the administration has treated these workers with indifference ... Last month the board voted to deny their request, but they are returning more determined and growing stronger each day, joined with more workers with the same goals and bolstered by allies in the labor movement and the community."
Heather Jackson, a 12-year Kokomo schools bus driver, spoke in front of the school board Wednesday evening, asking the board to reconsider their decision. She was supported by several other employees and representatives from AFSCME Council 962 who filled the meeting room to standing-room only.
"We've tried to speak with the administration about our concerns and needs multiple times and asked for a request to speak (at a school board meeting) before, but have been met with resistance," Jackson said. "Many fears that a union would get in the way of the district's mission to serve the students and undermine the board's legal authority could not be further from the truth. As dedicated employees, we work hard to provide quality services, and we love our kids. We care about our jobs, and we believe it's time our hard work and loyalty be recognized."
In an interview with the Tribune after the board meeting, Jackson said the union effort is largely due to understaffing concerns, safety concerns largely brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to switch back to the 26-week pay period so drivers can be paid over the summer months.
According to Jackson, the school district had more than 40 bus drivers at one point, but that has whittled down over the last several years to around 30.
"We're doubling up routes because we don't have enough drivers to get all these kids to school safely, she said. "We have kids standing out there for 20, 30 minutes in the morning waiting on whatever bus may swing by and pick them up."
Last October, the school district's bus drivers asked for an additional pay raise other than the 2% raise all district employees received in 2021. In a letter sent to the board last fall, the bus drivers stated the low pay had cost the corporation "numerous drivers" and that raising the pay to be more aligned with other local school districts would help to attract and limit turnover.
KSC bus drivers are paid $15.73 an hour as a starting wage and receive other benefits, such as health, vision and dental insurance and pay into Indiana's pension plan as full-time employees. In the letter, the drivers asked for an $18 per hour wage and a $0.25 yearly raise from a person's hire date.
That $18 per hour wage would put Kokomo bus drivers closer to what other nearby school districts pay their drivers. The starting wage for Eastern School Corporation for its bus drivers is $15 per hour; at Northwestern School Corporation it's a daily rate of $93.16, which equates to $20.70/hr; at Western School Corporation its $20 per hour; and at Taylor Community School Corporation its $20.31 per hour.
*Correction: A previous version of this article wrongly stated the hourly rate Northwestern pays it bus drivers.
Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich