IPS restarts bus service — promising driver bonuses following ‘sick-out’

After a weekend of uncertainty, school bus service resumed on Monday, and most Indianapolis Public Schools students returned to class. District officials said buses will also run regular routes on Tuesday.

About 78% of IPS’ 31,800 students came to school Monday after the superintendent’s office made a last-minute announcement at about 5:30 a.m. that buses would be running that day. District officials had urged families to find alternative rides to school in case they had to cancel buses to and from school for a second day.

On Friday, Indianapolis Public Schools was forced to cancel transportation after almost one-fifth of the district’s 550 drivers and monitors called in sick during an apparent protest of the district’s plan to outsource transportation and force drivers to reapply for their jobs. Although some busing staff called out sick again Monday, about 30 more drivers came to work compared to Friday, and the district was able to offer regular bus service, according to IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

The sick-out was not organized by AFSCME, the union that represents the drivers.

Campuses remained open Friday, but fewer than half of students were at school. Average student attendance at campuses where Indianapolis Public Schools provides transportation is 92%.

The transportation crisis is an early test of Superintendent Aleesia Johnson’s leadership. Her administration is likely to face other obstacles as the state’s largest district pursues significant cost-cutting measures in a bid to shift more money to classrooms.

Indianapolis Public Schools typically buses about 22,000 students to school each day, and officials scrambled to come up with a plan over the weekend to ensure that enough drivers showed up to get students to school on Monday. The district offered compensation bonuses of up to $2,000 for employees who maintain strong attendance until the end of the school year, according to a statement from Indianapolis Public Schools.

The contractor selected to take over district busing, First Student, also agreed to offer bonuses of $1,500 to Indianapolis Public Schools drivers in good standing whom they hire. First Student also confirmed that AFSCME would be recognized as the representative of their Indianapolis employees “once a specified threshold was met,” according to a district statement, which did not specify the threshold.

The district also made a deal with IndyGo, the city’s public bus service, to provide free rides to elementary and middle school students. High schoolers already receive free rides with their student IDs.

Currently, some school bus drivers work for the district and others work for Durham, another outside contractor. The Indianapolis Public Schools board voted last month to switch to First Student for all its bus service beginning in July.

The deal is supposed to save the district about $7 million annually. It’s part of a broader effort to reduce spending on transportation and redirect it to classrooms, which the district embraced in a bid to win support from the Indy Chamber for a tax referendum.

The decision to outsource busing was a “first step” in cutting transportation costs, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer of the Chamber. “The status quo is unacceptable,” Fisher said. “IPS needs to be making moves to become financially sustainable.”

Bus drivers have commercial drivers licenses, which qualify them for many jobs in Central Indiana, Fisher argued. The driver shortage “was adults making decisions that negatively impacted children — and oftentimes the most vulnerable children in IPS,” he said.

While some commenters online share Johnson’s view that drivers taking part in the sick-out are putting students in danger, others were supportive of the protest.

Erin Caskey, a parent at  School 60, said her daughter, a kindergartener, takes the bus to school most days, and the drivers are “so kind and gentle.”

“It just makes me feel sad that there are so many bus drivers and bus attendants that have not felt like they are being treated respectfully,” Caskey said. “These are people that are part of our community.”