The Worcester County Commissioners flirted with a dangerous precedent this week, but they did not make the mistake in the end.
By a 3-4 vote, the commissioners opted against a motion to increase mileage and hourly pay rates for local bus contractors beyond what the Worcester County Board of Education approved in its proposed budget. The school system plans a 5.5% pay raise for its 69 bus drivers – the same as teachers – over the next fiscal year. Estimates show the average annual bus contract in Worcester is worth $76,000 (based on a five-hour, 100-mile school day), compared to $66,967 in Wicomico and $63,200 in Somerset.
Bus contractors argue rising expenses have made keeping buses on the road expensive and current pay conditions have not been adjusted enough to keep pace with rising inflation, fuel, health insurance and maintenance costs. These are understandable concerns, but they make take a couple years to be fully addressed to the bus drivers’ liking. The commissioners were right to review the concerns and hear from the school system, but it would have been bad business to go beyond what the school board approved in its budget. The matter was evaluated extensively, and changes made to help the bus drivers. The same process will play out next year and another adjustment likely.
Worcester County Commission President Joe Mitrecic was right when he maintained the county would be setting a disturbing example if it dictated to the school system the pay for school drivers. It would have opened a Pandora’s box of similar concerns in future years.
“I don’t want all of the cafeteria workers from the school board sitting down here saying they don’t make enough money,” Mitrecic said. “I don’t want the janitors coming down here. My personal opinion is I think we let the board of education deal with their employees. If they start losing employees, losing bus drivers, then they’re going to have to make the adjustment.” The motion to further support the bus drivers failed in a 3-4 vote with Commissioners Ted Elder, Diana Purnell and Josh Nordstrom in favor and Commissioners Chip Bertino, Jim Bunting, Bud Church and Mitrecic opposed.
As a matter of protocol, the school system’s employees and contractors need to work amicably with the Board of Education and administrators. Respect needs to be a key piece of the dialogue. Divisiveness is not productive and there needs to be a mending of the relationships after the last couple months. Surely, while the bus drivers feel their concerns were not addressed enough, the school system leaders are likely offended their decision was questioned to such a degree before the commissioners. The outcome remained the same, but by the narrowest of votes.