- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2004

About 600 special-education students in the District were stranded at their homes yesterday morning, when bus drivers and attendants staged an illegal sickout over wage and back-pay issues.

The action forced public school officials to cancel or reassign 105 bus routes for the 260 drivers who called in sick — about 20 percent of the school system’s 1,300 bus drivers.

“While I believe that some of these individuals have legitimate grievances with the school department, it’s completely unacceptable to me to hold individual children accountable and to make them the victims,” said David Gilmore, the school system’s transportation administrator.

“The kids should not be paying the penalty and that’s what’s happening here.”

School officials said drivers who called in sick will be required to present a valid doctor’s note excusing them from work. Drivers without a note may face the loss of a day’s pay, or they may be fired.

“You have to assess these on an individual basis,” Mr. Gilmore said. “But if we determine that they participated in any illegal activity, we will impose disciplinary actions, which could mean termination of employment.”

Public school officials and union representatives were in court late yesterday. The D.C. Attorney General’s Office sought an injunction that would levy heavy penalties if the drivers fail to transport children to school today. Details about the injunction were not available late yesterday.

The sickout forced many parents to scramble to get their children to school or keep them home for the day.

“I cannot go to work, I have to call out sick because the bus was supposed to be here at my home at about 7:30 this morning and it didn’t come,” parent Jongikhya Lucas told the Associated Press.

At Mamie D. Lee School in Northeast, a school for mentally handicapped students 3 to 22 years old, Principal JoAnn Turner said school officials always call parents to find out why their children are absent. She said 31 students were not at school because of transportation problems when classes began at 7:45 a.m.

“It’s annoying because the children are caught in the middle of something over which they have no control,” Miss Turner said. “It’s unfortunate that adults can’t resolve this in a manner that doesn’t affect the children.”

Miss Turner said buses continued to bring students to the school until after 10 a.m. By the end of the day, 15 students were still not at school and drivers were forced to take double loads to get remaining students home.

“There’s been a series of months and months passed where employees were promised they’d be compensated for money they’re owed,” said George Johnson, executive director of District Council 20 for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing the drivers. “If they were sick, [school officials are] what made them sick.”

Bus driver Charles Peay, who stood outside the Northeast bus lot from where he normally drives, yesterday said drivers “don’t get the pay for the amount of hours that they work. And you get tired of working all the time and can’t get paid for the work that you do.”

Some drivers said they simply couldn’t afford to call in sick yesterday, while others said a more coordinated effort would cause them to take part next time.

“If everybody would stick together, then I’d do it,” said a bus attendant at Mamie D. Lee.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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