Charleston County residents no longer have to worry about a school bus driver strike.

Union school bus drivers in Charleston County agreed 138-9 Saturday to accept a new five-year contract from their employer, Durham School Services, which includes a pay raise.

“The members seemed happy,” said L.D. Fletcher, president of Teamsters Local 509, which represents school bus drivers in Beaufort County, Charleston County and Dorchester 2.

Union drivers in Beaufort County and Dorchester 2 approved their offers from the company last week.

The three Lowcountry school districts hired Durham School Services to employ bus drivers and manage bus routes.

Negotiations between the union and Durham on a new employment contract started last July and simmered for months.

Talks escalated in January after the union's membership authorized its leadership to call a strike, if necessary. The union later told Durham it would not strike while talks were continuing, and both sides have been mostly silent during the past few weeks.

What was at stake

The biggest issues in the talks were the drivers' pay and benefits.

But the possibility of a strike — and the potential disruption to the morning routines of thousands of Charleston County families and other commuters — made the negotiations big news for weeks.

About 22,000 of the district's 45,000 students take a school bus each day.

Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy J. McGinley issued a statement Saturday expressing relief about the agreement and making clear that buses will operate as normal on Monday.

“I applaud the leadership and our drivers for resolving this situation without a work stoppage,” she said. “This situation was stressful, but it was a great reminder of the positive power of community.”

An automated call from McGinley also went out to parents to let them know the threat of a strike has passed.

“It's going to be a busy spring, and soon this will seem like it's far in the past, but I wanted to take this moment to share my gratitude with everyone in the community,” she said.

Deals in other counties

Last week, union drivers in Dorchester 2 agreed to a five-year deal that will give them a 50-cent per hour raise the first year, and 45-cent per hour raises each of the following four years.

Its drivers also will have five paid holidays. This is the first time Dorchester 2 drivers have had a contract with Durham, and this is their first raise in three years, Fletcher said.

Both of those deals also passed easily: Three drivers in Dorchester 2 voted no, while four were opposed in Beaufort.

An average driver's salary had not been provided for Dorchester 2. In Charleston County, drivers are making an average of $14.40 per hour, and drivers make an average of $14.65 in Beaufort County.

Drivers in most districts are part time and work about 4˝-hour days.

Other districts in the state employ their own drivers directly. In Berkeley County, for example, the drivers have an average pay of between $13.50 per hour and $14 per hour.

Money not only thing

Fletcher said the real issue for drivers wasn't just money but the way Durham was treating its employees.

“We wanted to clear those issues up and get them to treat drivers with dignity and respect,” he said. “That was the main concern.”

The turning point in the negotiations came when Tom McBride, senior vice president with Durham, arrived in the Lowcountry. Fletcher said McBride understood drivers' concerns and committed to fixing them.

“I'm glad it's over, and parents can have peace knowing that we have an agreement,” Fletcher said. “We've got to work together now. They're addressing the issues, and we're going forward.”

Contract — and cheers

Almost 300 of Charleston County's 413 school bus drivers are part of the union, and about 125 of the 165 drivers in Dorchester 2 were union members. In Beaufort County, 135 of the 170 school bus drivers are part of the union.

The five-year contract offered to union drivers in Beaufort County, Charleston County and Dorchester 2 was the same.

The first-year 50-cent per hour pay increase is retroactive to when drivers' contracts expired last fall, which means drivers will receive a check for back pay in coming weeks. Within six months, they'll see another 45-cent per hour raise.

“Who wouldn't look forward to a raise?” Fletcher said. “Whatever they need, they know what they're going to be making for the next five years.”

Union school bus drivers cheered when they were told the contract passed.

They were just as tired of the threat of a strike as the public, but they also knew they would have to do whatever needed to be done, he said.

“They love those children,” Fletcher said. “They don't change their routes. They're part of the children's lives. It's like a family.”

Robert Behre contributed to this report.