School Board does not approve supplementing ECCO bus driver, monitor pay

The only item on the agenda for the July 24 special called meeting of the Natchitoches Parish School Board did not pass, with the following votes:

Yea: Russell E Danzy, Reba Phelps
Nay: Emile Metoyer, Billy Benefield Jr, Steven Harris, Dorothy McGaskey, Lela Harvey, Chad Fredieu, Barbara Page

The agenda item was to approve a proposed amendment to pricing by ECCO (Natchitoches Parish Bus Services) including an increase in home-to-school driver pay by $3 per hour and monitor pay by $1.25 an hour based on competitive pressures for recruitment and retention, as well as the removal of vehicle restrictions of the current contract effective August of 2023, for the next three years. 

Superintendent Dr. Grant Eloi shared information about a suggestion that was put before the School Board by ECCO because of record inflation. Dr. Eloi said the company has exhausted efforts to find another avenue and have saved the district significant sums of money ($5 million over the past 3 years). 

When asked if there was a wya the board could help ECCO save money so they could give their employees the raise, Dr. Eloi explained that the School Board is not eligible to receive grants for electric buses because you have to turn in a “dirty bus” (gas fueled bus) for every electric bus you receive through the grants. ECCO leases their buses, which makes the School Board ineligible for the grants. 

Board Member Reba Phelps said she was opposed to the pay increase at first, but driver shortages is a nationwide problem that’s not going away any time soon. Besides this, other school districts are paying more than Natchitoches Parish.

Some board members expressed their concern over what kind of precedent this kind of supplementing contractors is setting. Board Member Emile Metoyer compared it to a car salesman coming back for an additional $5,000 a year after selling you your new car.

Dr. Eloi explained that ECCO is by far the district’s biggest contract and significantly different because of the impact it has.

Finance Director Lee Waskom said the district has been using increases in sales tax money to offset the losses in MFP, which the district won’t see much of an increase anymore. Savings will have to be found elsewhere. He added that the district is leaving a lot of money ($2.5 million annually) by not taking advantage of federal grants. This would mean an additional $440,000 for General Funds for managing the grants.

“We need to become very efficient in that,” he said.

This money left on the table is dealing with rollovers. You don’t want to have money left over at the end of the year, you want to consume it all. The perception is that the money rolls over, but it doesn’t. Also, if you’re given $2.8 million one year and you don’t spend it all, the federal government is going to give you $1.8 million the next year.

“Since this is about children we need to make sure that we’re effectively spending it,” Waskom said. “I do believe that would easily be able to pay [for the pay raises] just with the efficiencies we’ll be able to create over the next year.”