By Othor Cain
In an exclusive interview with The Mississippi Link, Dec. 11, Dr. Cedrick Gray, superintendant for Jackson Public Schools, discussed how the district got to the place it finds itself – with transportation workers on strike, asking for better pay and the ability to guard themselves from disruptive students.
Gray reacted to rumors that he received a $15,000 bonus and a new vehicle.
MS Link: Dr. Gray, thank you for giving us this exclusive. I appreciate your time and your trust. I wanted to ask first, how did we get to this point?
Gray: I think it is important to take a full look at where we are. If you dial back one year ago today, we were in court with the City of Jackson talking about financial needs and assessments; one-year ago today we were approaching the banks about refinancing and restructuring our debt so that we would not fall off a fiscal cliff.
Twelve months really isn’t a long time. However, my research and Intel tells me that it has been about five years since anyone in the district has received any type of increase.
So we join those two facts together and we meet here where we have a school system that is building itself financially again…; not anywhere or way completely out of the woods, by no means…. But also a school system with employees that haven’t been given some sort of increase in a while.
MS Link: Dr. Gray, you said your research showed that it has been five years since anyone in the district has received some type of pay increase, some bus drivers are saying it has been 10 years for them. Are you aware of that?
Gray: No, I’m not aware of that. I’m not sure how accurate that information is. I depend on the financial records in our finance office and they say to me it’s been about five years.
I also depend very heavily on our executive director of Transportation who shared the exact same information that it has been five years.
MS Link: We did a quick search on pay for bus drivers in the metro area, and it showed that although we are the largest school district in the area, our pay is lower. What is the current rate of pay for bus drivers in JPS?
Gray: The average rate of pay is near $11 per hour. The average salary and district cost of benefits per driver is $15,000. The average hours worked per day are five. The number of days worked and paid each year is194.
If you do the math, the actual cost to the district per driver is $15.46 per hour per driver. That is rate of pay, benefits and paid days off. Now how that compares to the other districts: some of them don’t pay benefits, some don’t pay days off and some don’t pay five hours. So it isn’t an apple to apples comparison sometimes.
So when you see different figures for different districts, you have to ask the question: how do they pay? You have to peel the onion back. This is our onion peeled back.
MS Link: We know that you had two meetings Tuesday, Dec. 10, with bus drivers; one at the north transportation campus and the other at the south transportation campus.
We understand based on some media reports that for the drivers, those meetings didn’t go as they had hoped. What are your thoughts of those meetings?
Gray: The goal of those meetings was for me to clear up some misinformation. We had heard rumors about my getting a $15,000 bonus and a new vehicle. I told them in no uncertain terms that wasn’t true…; in fact that I wasn’t even remotely interested in a bonus and that I was more than fine driving my 2010 Chevy with 91,000 miles.
But the other thing for me was to share with them that I am an employee of the School Board, and I respond and react to the directions that the Board gives me.
In this case, the Board gives direction through its budget and has said to me that I have this amount of money and that I must work within those confinements.
I said to them that I’ve approached my bosses about this budget and what the next year looks like and the next. We are making provisions, but it takes time.
MS Link: There are those who walked away from that meeting who said you gave little to no regard to their real feelings in terms of where they are…. They wanted closure and to move forward, but you had a one-track mind and came across very disconnected.
Gray: I must apologize if I came across that way. Unfortunately, there are folk that don’t believe that I am human. Like everybody else, the reality of this situation, the context of it is not only emotional but also very tense.
I’m being told by my folk (staff) that I can’t negotiate. If you start answering a bunch of questions, you will start negotiating and put yourself in jeopardy. But for those who know me, know that I’m not afraid of talking.
I’m very approachable. So if I came across edgy or as if I didn’t have their best interest at heart, then again I apologize. Those were not my intentions. I just couldn’t field a lot of questions.
MS Link: The district is in testing season and preparing for the holiday break. How is the district dealing with the students who are impacted by this strike?
Gray: Through our telephone system global connect, we are in touch with our parents. We are informing them on testing and other things. We are excusing tardiness but not necessarily absences because we are testing.
Our attendance is up two percent, which says to me that parents do value education and what we are doing. I do however understand that we must bring this to a close, we must wrap this up.
MS Link: In addition to money being an issue for the bus drivers, some also have grave concerns about student discipline. What is the district doing to address this issue?
Gray: We’ve reviewed our discipline plans on buses and in the school buildings, and we are beefing up wherever there’s a need and trust me there are some. It is a valid concern and we are dealing with that. I do know it will take the entire community to help with this. Studies show that with parental involvement, behavior problems decrease.
MS Link: What are you hoping that will come out of your meeting with the Board today?
Gray: I am hopeful that I will get my marching orders as it relates to the next steps. We all have a job to do and I clearly recognize that we need to bring closure to this situation. And I look forward to being able to offer some type of resolve soon.
MS Link: At the conclusion of today’s meeting (Dec. 11) there was no resolution but discussions were had about the next steps. Both Gray and the board are working aggressively to find an end to this strike.
Gray is expected to meet with the bus drivers again on Friday, Dec. 13.
You can watch the full interview with Dr. Gray on our website, www.mississippilink.com, and look for the bus driver’s point of view next week.