Zac Campbell paused suddenly and took a minute to gather himself, while colleagues shuffled toward him to touch his back in support. The emotion that can accompany the act of baring one’s soul in front of a phalanx of TV cameras, photographers, and notepad-bearing journalists on a controversial matter of public policy had briefly caught up with the veteran Wake County school bus driver. For someone who usually does most of his public speaking into a rearview mirror as he addresses a gaggle of energetic kids, speaking in public in front of the state Legislative Building last Friday was clearly a new and challenging experience.
After a few seconds, however, Campbell composed himself. He quickly made clear to the assembled audience the source of the emotion he was displaying: his passionate commitment to the children he serves and his deep frustration with the shameless cruelty of the state’s Republican legislative leadership.
The event at which Campbell was speaking had been organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators to protest the ongoing refusal of the General Assembly to pass a state budget that provides a living wage for school bus drivers. And as the compelling testimony offered by Campbell and his colleague, 20-year veteran Juneakcia Green, made clear, the current situation across the state is dire.
Simply put, school bus driver pay is absurdly lousy in North Carolina – so lousy that drivers have abandoned the profession in large numbers. And that fact has led to a chronic, debilitating and dangerous driver shortage.
As Green and Campbell made clear in painful detail, what has always been an enormously difficult job – drivers wrestle a giant vehicle on labyrinthine routes, maintain order, break up fights, keep tabs on crying, homesick five-year-olds, aid hungry and even shoeless children out of their own pockets – has recently descended into an almost chaotic situation, especially with the added demands posed by the pandemic.
In 2019, Campbell – who used the word “unraveling” to describe the current situation – served two schools and two routes twice per day. Now it’s six schools and seven routes and kids routinely arrive 30 minutes or more late. Green must now service five schools and drive her routes as fast as various speed limits allow in hopes of minimizing the amount of time late her charges arrive at school.
What’s more, as Green, Campbell and the dozens of others in attendance Friday reported, the bus driver shortage is a statewide crisis. In multiple counties, drivers are working for fast food money – $12.75 per hour during a pair of daily split shifts – and many rely on food stamp/SNAP benefits to feed their families.
Despite this appalling state of affairs, one of the most powerful, and even poignant, aspects of Friday’s event was the remarkable modesty of the group’s central demand – namely, merely to be included in the group that’s covered by North Carolina’s existing $15-an-hour minimum wage for state employees.
As any parent who’s ever chaperoned a school field trip or otherwise set foot on a crowded school bus can readily attest, it is a job of enormous responsibility that requires great skill and Job-like patience. In a just state that hadn’t so long underfunded public schools and demeaned and diminished the jobs filled disproportionately by women and people of color, driving a school bus would be a solid and attractive middle-class job that paid $25-$30-an-hour or more. The fact that even those doing the work have set their sights so low is a testament to how out of whack and unjust things in our state have become.
But, of course, low school bus driver pay is far from the only powerful indicator of the aggressive disinvestment in public education that state Republican lawmakers have pursued over the past decade.
As has repeatedly been made plain by analysts, advocates and courts of law, the list of neglected and underfunded line items in the state education budget is a long and growing one that includes custodians, cafeteria workers, teachers, nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists – not to mention buildings, HVAC systems, technology, textbooks and school buses themselves.
Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the largesse of the federal government, the misers on Jones Street sit athwart a pile of several billion dollars in surplus funds – dollars that can and should be used to stop the bleeding and commence the process of constructing a truly constitutional public education system. Instead GOP budgets have earmarked to an obscene degree another round of regressive tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and profitable out-of-state corporations.
The bottom line: One hopes that heroic public servants like Green and Campbell, who proudly referred on Friday to the vehicle in which he transports his precious cargo as a “mobile yellow classroom” and a “sanctuary,” will hang in there. But skinflint Republican budgets are making that tougher and tougher – so much so that one is left to wonder if that hasn’t been the plan all along.