Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Public school bus drivers prove the power of privilege at the state Capitol.

Of a kind with chickens and eggs, it is unclear to me if my fascination with data like lists of lobbyists registered to do business at the state Capitol is born of being in the newspaper business, or whether I’m in the this business because I get pleasure from such lists.

There are more than 1,400 organizations — private companies, professional associations, unions, issue advocates, religious groups — who have something on the order of 3,000 lobbyists on retainer to push their agenda or protect their interests in Baton Rouge. Many of them are familiar national companies like FedEx, General Electric and ExxonMobil. Others, like Acadian Ambulance (11 lobbyists), are big regional companies whose success is no doubt due in part to their stroke with the Legislature. Redflex Traffic Systems, they of the red light cameras and speed vans, has six lobbyists. The Coalition for Common Sense, a pro-business group whose raison d’etre is tort reform, has a whopping 15. The Lafayette City-Parish Council has one, and Lafayette Consolidated Government and Lafayette Utilities System share the über-lobbying power duo of Randy and Ryan Haynie who, not coincidentally, were also hired in early May by Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., progenitor of the disaster in the Gulf.

But nowhere on the list could I find a union representing school bus drivers, and based on the fate of two bills in as many weeks in the House and Senate, both of them by Lafayette public education gadfly and former school board member Rickey Hardy, bus drivers don’t need one.

Louisiana is the only state in the union to offer tenure to public-school bus drivers. Tenure is the technical term for “nearly impossible to fire.” It’s offered to teachers and administrators in public education institutions nationwide, including Louisiana, but not to part-time employees like bus drivers. Except in Louisiana. Cafeteria workers don’t get tenure. Nor do teachers’ aides.

Hardy’s bill was inspired by Kenny Mire, a Lafayette bus driver arrested in September 2009 on a drunk driving charge in his personal vehicle who ran his bus route a few hours after bonding out of jail. Mire remains on the school system payroll.

It’s hard to account for how bus drivers came to acquire tenure, other than the obvious: through the beneficence of a politician. And, if Lafayette is any example, driving a school bus is a segue into politics: School board rep Rae Trahan is a former driver, and councilman Purvis Morrison remains one.

Hardy’s House Bill 565 would have ended tenure for drivers hired after July 1 of this year, although it grandfathered in those currently employed.

But Hardy pulled the bill as a procession of fellow representatives offered amendments to exempt their own parishes when it came up for final adoption in the House. Among them was Rep. Girod Jackson of Jefferson Parish, the son and grandson of bus drivers, who offered the ridiculous defense that if school children knew bus drivers weren’t protected by tenure they wouldn’t consider a career as a bus driver. Rep. Jack Montoucet of Crowley withdrew his amendment, which would have exempted both Acadia and Lafayette parishes, after Hardy yanked the bill.

Last week, another Hardy bill that would have imposed a cap on how much bus drivers make for field trips and other extracurricular excursions was scuttled in the Senate after receiving 81-4 approval in the House. HB 1188 applied only to Lafayette Parish.

Under the fee schedule of the recently completed school year, a Lafayette bus driver made about $31 an hour for a five and a half hour trip to Abbeville, and the farther the distance the higher the rate ($55/hour for a seven-hour sally to Alexandria; $68/hour for an 11.5-hour jaunt to Houston, i.e., the longer a driver has to put up with screaming children the more the driver makes, which, frankly, is understandable). Hardy wanted to cap that hourly rate at $20. His reasoning, according to a spokesman, is that the exorbitant fees make field trips and athletic travel prohibitive for schools in poorer districts.

But the bus drivers won the legislative chambers. And Hardy’s bills? They got pushed to the lobby.

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