The St. Landry Parish School System faces potential legal action after the board on Thursday unanimously approved hiring 17 bus drivers previously designated as substitute employees.

Following a 40-minute closed session, the board without discussion followed the recommendation of Superintendent Edward Brown to elevate to full-time status a third of the district’s 51 substitute drivers at an annual cost of $285,000.

Board attorney Gerard Caswell said prior to the executive session that the school system has received written notification from the Louisiana State Bus Operators Association that it intended to file suit if the board adopted the measure.

Although obtaining full-time employment now qualifies the 17 drivers to receive health and retirement benefits offered to all permanent workers, representatives of the state bus operators association said Thursday’s action does not go far enough.

Kathy Landry, District 6 representative for the association, said the board should have allowed permanent drivers the chance to work all 51 of the routes now driven strictly by the substitute drivers.

In an interview, Brown said he and Caswell were surprised the drivers’ organization is displeased with the board’s action.

“In the discussions with had with (Landry and SBOA attorney William Whatley) previously, all Mr. Caswell and (Transportation Director William Thibodeaux) and I heard was about opening up the routes for the 17,” Brown said.

Whatley and Landry said they believe the school district violated state law by allowing the substitutes to get 17 route vacancies without offering the routes first to the permanent or tenured drivers.

Whatley and Landry said the potential litigation, which may be filed in federal court, might also challenge the district’s hiring of longtime substitutes, some of whom have driven for 24 years without any employee benefits other than a monthly paycheck.

There is also a racial component to the district’s extended use of substitute drivers, Whatley said. About 80 percent of the substitute drivers are black, he said.

The district, Brown said, cannot afford to hire all substitute drivers as full time in addition to providing insurance, retirement and health benefits.

Landry said the bus drivers’ organization understands Brown’s position that St. Landry would be devastated financially if all 51 substitute drivers would be hired full time.

The SBOA, Landry said, does not expect the district to hire all current substitutes to work full time.