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Beaufort County school bus drivers consider strike

HILTON HEAD ISLAND -- With the rejection of its latest offer, the union representing Beaufort County school bus drivers moved closer to calling a strike vote Wednesday afternoon.

An official with the union said drivers might soon take the vote if First Student, the company drivers work for, doesn't agree to higher wages and better treatment.

"The very last thing we want to do is go on strike," said L.D. Fletcher, president of Teamsters Local 509, which represents nearly all drivers in the Beaufort County School District. "We just want the company to give what the drivers deserve."

First Student's vice president, John Ziegler, could not be reached for comment after the union's offer was rejected. Earlier in the day, he said the company was "going to continue to negotiate in good faith."

If drivers strike, the district will have to find transportation for many of the 12,000 students who take the bus to school every day.

No more negotiating sessions are scheduled before Aug. 20, when classes resume at schools operating on the traditional calendar.

"If we don't hear from the company, then we will be taking a strike vote in the near future," Fletcher said.

The district pays First Student, a Cincinnati-based company, $4.2 million a year to provide most of its drivers and monitors and to maintain 140 buses.

Earlier this month, the union began negotiating with First Student, Fletcher said. It asked for increased wages and an end to what it called favoritism. Since drivers do not work directly for the district, district officials are not a part of the negotiations.

"First Student notified us (Tuesday) that the negotiations were not going well and that a strike was possible," said John Williams, assistant superintendent for information services.

Several drivers waiting to pick up students Wednesday at Bluffton Elementary School said they were unaware the union was considering a strike until seeing local news reports.

One driver, who did not want to be named, said employees deserved better treatment and improved compensation, but said she would likely not support a strike.

"We can't afford a strike," the 31-year-old driver said. "We've got families."

What the union wants

The union is waiting to see if the company returns with a counter or a final offer. The union would consider any counter offer, Fletcher said. A final offer, however, would be taken to union members to consider so they can decide whether to strike, he said.

Among the changes the union is seeking is improved wages. The starting wage for drivers is $10.50 an hour, Fletcher said. A spokesman for First Student has said recently the national average for drivers at the company's more than 300 locations is about $14 per hour.

Fletcher said some Beaufort County drivers make more than that, earning up to $16.55 per hour. The union contends there is no consistent rationale concerning who gets raises and who doesn't.

Fletcher also said some drivers receive preferential treatment from the company in areas such as picking up extra hours. Drivers are guaranteed 20 hours per week, but have an option to pick up extra hours by volunteering to work field trips or other excursions beyond their daily routes.

Back-up plans

The impact a strike might have on the county's schools would depend on when it began, said Doug Hamrick, who works in the transportation division of the S.C. Department of Education.

If a strike happened soon, Hamrick said the Education Department could provide the district with a crew of instructors to train new drivers. Those drivers might be ready for work by the second week of school, he said.

The district could also consider hiring another company to provide drivers. The district has an option to terminate its contract with First Student if drivers strike, Williams said.

Meanwhile, schools that operate on a year-round calendar might be able to utilize the 12 drivers employed directly by the district, said Kathleen Corley, principal at Bluffton Elementary School. Students would also have to carpool, she said.

"We're open to as many options as there might be," Corley said.

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