Mat-Su bus drivers on strike said Thursday that they’ll head back to the bargaining table, a day after they lined up at a local school board meeting, blasting their employer over safety issues and asking board members to intervene.
Teamsters Local 959 officials announced Thursday afternoon that they were resuming negotiations with contractor Durham School Services starting at 9 a.m. Friday. The decision came after political coordinator Patrick FitzGerald said overtures had opened between the parties in the wake of Wednesday’s packed board meeting, where bus drivers filled the front rows and aired their concerns.
“This bus company does not care about the safety of these children as much as we bus drivers do,” Alice Smith told the board.
Drivers walked off the job Tuesday, after dropping students off at school. They had rejected Durham’s contract offer a day earlier.
The ongoing strike means no bus service to nearly all Mat-Su schools. The district has kept schools open, and families must figure out how to get their children to and from class. It has sent some parents scrambling to find last-minute transportation. Absenteeism rose by 4% on Wednesday, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
The union and Durham’s parent company, Illinois-based National Express, have blamed each other for the breakdown in contract negotiations.
The last offer the company sent to the union included 8% to 14% raises and a $1,500 bonus upon ratification of an agreement.
But bus drivers made clear at Wednesday night’s school board meeting that their top concerns center on safety.
Drivers, many wearing yellow traffic-safety vests, told the board about a company wracked by issues ranging from poor lighting at its Wasilla bus barn to delays fueling buses as diesel half-froze into sludge in an above-ground storage tank.
Buses were fitted with arc-style rather than square windshield wipers, drivers said, which left blind spots to the right, and had faulty internal heaters. Durham officials have said new heaters are on order, but haven’t yet been delivered.
Smith, who said she has driven for three school-bus companies – Laidlaw, First Student and Durham – told the board that Durham buses also lack external public-address speakers. They are a vital piece of safety equipment, she said, when other drivers illegally run buses’ red lights and stop signs as students board and depart – a daily occurrence.
“Outside of that bus, there is no speaker to scream at these kids, ‘Stop because this guy ain’t gonna stop for you,’” Smith said. “I could not deal with someone’s maiming or death on my conscience – it’d be the end of me because these students, as I said, are as my children and they’re precious cargo.”
Bus driver Deb Tilton said she spent two weeks switching through four buses a day, a major disruption to routine for the special-education students she transports, before dispatchers finally got her an assigned vehicle. She also said she had driven buses with wheelchair-lift alarms that continued to sound after a lift cycle and couldn’t be silenced, which she said Durham officials claimed would cost $50,000 to fix.
Viktor Sinyazsky, a mechanic with Durham, said its fleet of buses – described by the company in a Wednesday statement as mostly 2022 models – were difficult to maintain. He said they had more problems than the older but well-kept vehicles at First Student, the company contracted by the district before Durham.
Durham also had difficulties documenting work on its buses, he said.
“I’m supposed to fill the papers, but they’re ignoring these papers,” he said. “Nobody care about anything – looks like they care only about money. My God, what’s going on with this company? This company, not supposed to be here at all.”
Union representatives told the school board that it has a role in oversight of the district’s contract with Durham. They urged board members to investigate drivers’ claims. The district has already withheld more than $1.5 million in payments to Durham – which just started its 10-year contract last year – for missing some routes and not meeting contractual obligations, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Tilly Lucas, a bus driver serving Meadow Lakes Elementary and Wasilla Middle School, quoted a district statement on Durham’s selection last year. In the statement, Superintendent Randy Trani noted that Durham was chosen to transport students “after careful consideration based on safety, reliability and quality of service.”
“How do you feel about your new partnership?” Lucas asked Trani, who was seated with board members.
Trani did not answer the question, and board president Tom Bergey said board policy bars commenters from asking direct questions of specific people present.
More than two hours later during the meeting, Trani briefly addressed the strike during a timeline of how Durham was awarded its contract, dating back to an October 2020 request for proposal.
“I think everyone in this room would agree strikes are not good for students or their families or the people involved, which is why we’re doing all we can to encourage a quick and expedient solution to this problem and ratify a fair and equitable contract,” he said.
Trani also mentioned that state funding for school transportation has remained flat for several years.
“So it’s not a coincidence that all the schools in the state, especially the big five (districts), are struggling with this exact same problem,” he said.