More than half the students enrolled at Indianapolis Public Schools did not attend class Friday because buses could not run after too many drivers called out sick to protest a labor dispute, says the district's leader.
Drivers have been angry since last month when IPS announced sudden plans to outsource all transportation services with a private company.
Schools remained open but only 13,000 students were able to attend. Those unable to make it to class will not be marked absent.
Superintendent Aleesia Johnson says 71 drivers of about 300 total called out sick between Thursday evening and as late as 5:30 a.m. Friday. Some bus routes begin at 6 a.m. Not enough substitute drivers were available to fill the open routes.
More than 22,300 students ride one of 305 daily routes in the morning and afternoon.
"We strongly condemn the actions of these rogue employees who chose to make this decision, despite the guidance of their union leadership to not move forward with these actions," Johnson said during a press conference. "Their lack of concern for the safety of students in elementary through high school in the middle of winter is disappointing."
IPS announced Jan. 30 it would not renew a contract with bus vendor Durham School Services that expires June 30 in a cost-cutting move. Durham covers about two-thirds of the district's routes, and IPS cover the rest itself.
Durham said in a notice to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development the closure of two Indianapolis facilities will cost more than 500 jobs, including those of 218 drivers and 243 bus assistants.
Starting this summer, First Student will provide all transportation for the district. The change in service is expected to save the district $7 million annually, according to district officials.
The district has been searching for ways to reduce costs as it faces a budget deficit. IPS spends about 10 percent of its total budget on transportation and spends more each year than the amount of money it receives from property taxes to fund transportation.
The regional council of the IPS bus drivers employment union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said it heard from local union leaders and were assured the call-out was not endorsed.
"AFSCME understands many employees are frustrated by recent decisions made by district leadership and some employees may be acting independently based on these feelings," according to a statement from the council.
Johnson says she knows parents are angry about the lack of bus service Friday and shares the feeling.
"We are equally concerned about not being able to ensure that their students were able to be in schools. Today we are talking about students who may not have access to meals today as a result of being an out of school who weren't able to be an instruction," Johnson says. "Specifically our English language learners are in the middle of a testing season that's very important for them and it's has been interrupted.
"So I share in their concern but I also want them to know we are working very hard to get back to normal as soon as possible."
IPS says it's working on alternative plans to ensure that transportation is available Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.