School bus drivers will not stage a strike Friday, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools said Wednesday.
The school district’s announcement came after school transportation officials met with a group of bus drivers, said Brent Campbell, a spokesman for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
“In the end, the drivers decided they would not host a walkout on Friday,” Campbell said. “And together, we committed to ongoing work in addressing pay scale concerns and improved communication within their department.
“We value these drivers and understand they play a crucial role in making sure our students can learn,” Campbell said. “If students can’t get to school, they can’t learn.”
Kimberly Shouse, a school bus driver, told WXII last week that she and about 19 other drivers would not report to work this Friday if their wages didn’t improve. On Monday, Shouse told WFMY that 200 drivers would join her.
Shouse couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday about the canceled strike. Shouse has been with the school district since November 2020, Campbell said.
The district employs 286 bus drivers who transport about 35,300 students to and from local schools, Campbell said. School buses travel 35,656 miles daily, and those vehicles make 11,900 stops per day.
Heather Bolling of Jacksonsville, the president of the N.C. School Bus Drivers Association, said she is relieved that the strike was averted.
“We agreed with the point they are trying to make 100%,” Bolling said. “A living wage is necessary, and there are some safety issues that need to be addressed.
“Striking is illegal, and therefore not the answer,” Bolling said.
Like other school districts across the nation, the local district is experiencing a shortage of drivers, putting a strain on employees.
As of Wednesday, the school district had 67 driver vacancies, Campbell said.
Superintendent Tricia McManus had asked the drivers who planned to strike to contact the school district so it could help the children who would have been affected.
“Students are at the heart of what we do, and everything we do must be focused on what’s best for them,” McManus said Monday. “A strike will only impede our students’ ability to get to school and our students need to be in school now more than ever.
“Hurting students is never the right way to make a point,” McManus said. “We should continue working together to find win-win solutions.”
During their meeting, Shouse, other drivers and school officials discussed their concerns about their salaries and student discipline, Campbell said.
“Our team communicated that we support a living wage, and compensation that makes them feel valued,” Campbell said. “I think we were made aware of some communication breakdowns among our team and will work to address those so drivers do know and understand all the benefits, bonuses, and extra stipends that are available to them.”
Val Young, the president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, couldn’t be reached Wednesday to comment about the canceled strike. The FCAE didn’t support a strike among the school bus drivers, Young told WGHP.
Her association advocates for bus drivers, teacher’s assistants and other school employees.
Based on a 2020 compensation study that showed lagging salaries in several departments, the school district has increased salaries of many of its employees.
School bus drivers received the first raises, with the minimum hourly salary going from $13.64 to $15 starting in January 2021. Other bus drivers got an extra 50 cents an hour.
That put the local district in line with the minimum hourly wage of bus drivers in Guilford County and Wake County school districts, Jevelyn Bonner-Reed, the local district’s chief human resources officer, told the school board last December.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board recently voted to bump the minimum hourly wage to $17.75, and the Durham Public Schools board approved increasing pay to $17 an hour.
The median hourly wage among bus drivers in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is $16.
School district employees received a $1,000 retention bonus earlier this month. Bus drivers will also get $500 bonuses in December and May according to a plan the school board approved earlier this month.
In addition, the school district is giving employees $200 each quarter for perfect attendance.
School bus drivers must have commercial driver’s licenses. Over the summer, the school district launched an effort to recruit drivers, and of 36 who took the CDL course, five passed and are now employed.
“We would love to raise the salaries of bus drivers, and all employees for that matter, as this has been the toughest year any of us can remember,” McManus said.