Spurred to action by comments by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, members of the union that represents Montgomery County school bus drivers took to a Rockville street on Thursday morning.
About 20 members of SEIU Local 500 waved signs urging passing motorists to “Honk if you love your school bus driver” and depicting a report card giving Romney failing marks on schools, education and working families.
The protest, in front of Montgomery County Republican Party headquarters on Crabbs Branch Way, was prompted by Romney’s comments about school bus drivers.
“When a young person makes the honor roll, I know it took a bus to get to school, but I don’t give a bus driver credit for the honor roll,” Romney said in Manassas, VA, on Aug. 11, the day he tapped Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate.
(Cue up the 7:57 mark in this YouTube video to hear the comment.)
Romney has delivered variations of the line in stump speeches along the campaign trail.
His message is clear, bus drivers said.
“They’re saying that the bus drivers do not contribute to the kids’ education,” said Lia Lee, a supervisor at the Shady Grove Depot who has worked for Montgomery County Public Schools for 11 years. “Yes, they’re not teachers, but they are teaching them self-respect, they’re teaching them how to talk, they’re teaching them how to respect one another on the bus—the same rules as inside that school apply on that school bus.”
Lee added: “We take pride in that statement, ‘no child left behind’ as well.”
Bus drivers are often the first faces that students see when they leave home each school day, said Charles Montgomery, a county bus driver since 1989.
“Some of the kids don’t have people to talk to them,” he said. “When they get on the bus, they want someone to talk to them. We take them to school. We try to show them respect. In order to get respect, I tell them, you’ve got to earn it. We teach them that. We teach them being on time.”
Romney is “trying to put us down,” Montgomery said of bus drivers. “It’s a hard job. And I love it.”
Thursday’s protest was mostly a show of support for drivers, Montgomery said. “But I hope it’s political too. I’m not voting for [Romney].”
Rebecca Smondrowski, a candidate for the District 2 county school board seat from Gaithersburg who attended the protest, agreed with Montgomery that bus drivers set the tone for a child’s day.
Smondrowski said that her son, Andrew, a 16-year-old special education student at Gaithersburg High School, tells her that the bus ride to school—when he talks with his bus driver and bus aide—is the best part of his day.
“Every child’s day has the ability to be made or broken based on every adult that they come in contact with,” she said. “Every adult in our students’ lives is equally important.”
The idea of value was a focus of an Aug. 13 column by The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson about Romney’s bus driver line.
“What I hear Romney saying, and I suspect many others will also hear, is that the little people don’t contribute and don’t count,” Robinson wrote.
The “PostPartisan” blog highlighted contrasts in reader reaction to Robinson’s column.
“sedwards2” said Romney “wasn’t saying anything negative about bus drivers or ‘the little people,’” but was making a point about “apportionment of merit for one’s achievements.”
“There are people who empty the trash from our offices each night,” sedwards2 wrote. “They are good, hard working and decent people. They may have their own successes and achievements, however they may define them, but they are not responsible for the growth or success of my business.”
Another Post reader took exception with Romney’s remark: “As a Republican I don’t like the bus driver remark either,” wrote “Peterroach.”
“That individual is responsible for the safety for up to 40 kids, often unruly, boisterous children," he wrote. "Romney better think a little more before he talks about such things.”
Protestors Thursday expressed similar sentiment, saying that the lives of the county’s children are in their hands as buses leave depots at 6 a.m. every school day and venture out into rush hour traffic.
“Mitt Romney, you’re so rude! We don’t like your attitude!” the group chanted before union organizers attempted to deliver a petition to the county GOP office.
The petition, signed by protestors, “just asks Mitt Romney to respect bus drivers and working folks who get up every day and contribute to communities,” said Christopher Honey, communications director for SEIU Local 500.
An initial attempt to deliver the petition was met without an answer at the door of the headquarters.
Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Mark Uncapher did not return a call for comment on Thursday. Uncapher is part of the Maryland delegation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which concluded with Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night.