A political time bomb is ticking in Greenville, and the explosion could transform the state’s public education environment for decades to come.
Last Monday and Tuesday, between 13-20 bus drivers for the Greenville Public School District — some of the lowest paid employees in one of the most under-resourced school districts in one of the most under-resourced regions of America — skipped work to protest reduced pay and what they called poor work conditions.
This was one of the first organized work stoppages in Mississippi public schools since 9,429 teachers walked out in a 1985 strike, after which lawmakers passed the demanded pay increases but also enacted one of the nation’s most stringent strike laws.
Lawmakers that year made it explicitly illegal for school employees to strike in Mississippi. They drafted the law as broadly as possible to include pretty much any excuse that teachers — including bus drivers, in this case — could use.
The consequences for the Greenville bus drivers, clearly written out in state law, are grave: They could be fired and would never be able to work in any public school district in the state again. Several of the drivers have indicated to Mississippi Today in recent days they did not know the extent of the state law before they went on strike, and school officials said on Thursday that several of the drivers tried to retroactively claim they were sick for the two days of the strike.
Dorian Turner, the attorney for the Board of Trustees of the Greenville Public School District, said in a Greenville Public School District board meeting on Thursday afternoon that she had been gathering facts about what, exactly, happened last week. And despite the bus drivers’ claims about not knowing state law, she said that what occurred last week was, indeed, a strike.
“It looked to me that what we had was a situation where the bus drivers had gone on strike, and that was activity that was illegal,” Turner told the Greenville school board on Thursday. “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you’ve probably got a duck on your hands. They may or may not have known that doing that was an illegal activity, but that was the effect of all those employees deciding not to come to work.”
The meeting then quickly devolved into confusion, with board members talking over each other and lobbing accusations. Some members questioned whether what the bus drivers did even constituted a strike by legal definition, and the board president blamed the director of transportation for allowing the work stoppage.
The board members appeared oblivious to the state laws at hand, including ones that could affect them personally. The strike law passed in 1985 clearly states that school board members themselves are responsible for reporting the names of those who striked to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. For each day that those names are not reported by the board to the state, the individual board members and school administrators can be fined between $100 and $250. Turner did not disclose that provision to the board during the Thursday meeting, though Greenville Superintendent Debra Dace at one point said during the meeting that she had a list of the drivers who went on strike.
“Before we send these names to the AG’s office, we want to be sure,” Jan Vaughn, the president of the board, said during the meeting. “There’s a misdemeanor, a large fine, maybe even jail time. So I want to be clear about this before we take any action.”
The board ended the Thursday meeting by taking no action. The next board meeting is scheduled for May 27. If the names were not reported to the state until that day, every school board member in the Greenville Public School District could face fines of $8,000 each, according to the strike law.
Turner told Mississippi Today in an email she was not authorized to speak to reporters without permission from the board or the superintendent. Vaughn, the board president, has not returned multiple requests for comment since last week. A spokesperson for the district and superintendent did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today by Friday morning.
There is little legal precedent in the state that dictates what may happen next. The Greenville board obviously must make decisions about if, how and when to report the names of the bus drivers to the Attorney General’s Office. If that happens, it’s unclear how Attorney General Lynn Fitch may handle the case.
State Auditor Shad White, who earlier this year issued a demand for a return in taxpayer money to a University of Mississippi professor who participated in a nationwide walk-out, told Mississippi Today he is unsure if his office will investigate.
“The state law is clear: public employees in Mississippi cannot strike,” White said in a statement. “My role, if there was a strike, is to ensure that striking employees were not paid while on strike. My assumption here is that the drivers were not paid while they were not driving, though we haven’t looked into it.”
For years, attorneys and advocates both in Mississippi and outside the state have been clamoring to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s strike law. But without legal standing to make such a challenge, they’ve had nothing to do but wait. The Greenville bus drivers may have, perhaps inadvertently, kicked that door wide open.
Many have argued the merits of the strike law being struck down in Mississippi. The state’s public school teachers are the lowest paid, on average, in the nation. While teacher pay is often the most discussed issue at hand, behind the frustration of many school teachers is a long history of broken political promises and little meaningful action to support the very teachers that politicians often boast as critical to the future of the state.
Certainly not making matters easier is the fact that public education advocacy groups, whose thousands of members often suggest going on strike, have been handcuffed by the strike law themselves and are now left to sit on the sidelines while the Greenville situation unfolds.
The law passed in 1985 explicitly prohibits “teacher organizations” from doing anything to “promote, encourage or participate in any strike against a public school district, the State of Mississippi or any agency thereof.” During the 1985 strike, board members of the Mississippi Association of Educators, the local affiliate of the National Education Association that is still active in advocacy work today, were fined and received two-day jail sentences for the organization’s role in the strike (although the board members did not actually have to serve the jail time after cooperating with court orders).
What happens in the days to come is unknown. But eager onlookers — both the ones who are speaking up and the ones who legally cannot — realize this moment could prove pivotal to the state’s educational future.
Meanwhile, the Greenville bus drivers, who all along just wanted to be paid fairly and treated better by school district leaders, are caught in a grim reality. Their bosses, the same ones who ignored their pleas for better pay and treatment during the pandemic and pushed them to organize a work stoppage, appear poised to report their names to the state’s top prosecutor.
Fair or not — constitutional or not — the law is working exactly how lawmakers in 1985 intended.
READ MORE: Background of Mississippi’s strict law that forbids educators from striking.