Dorchester 2 school leaders say they aren’t worried about a school bus driver strike during the upcoming school year, and they have committed to another year with the private company that uses union drivers.
The suburban district’s school board agreed in a 5-1 vote Monday night to continue its contract with Durham School Services for 2013-14. Durham is responsible for managing bus routes and employing drivers for Dorchester 2, as well as for Charleston County and Beaufort County schools.
Many of Durham’s drivers are part of Teamsters Local 509, which threatened to strike this year during weeks of contentious contract negotiations. The ordeal that put thousands of students’ rides in jeopardy was resolved by early March when union drivers in all three districts accepted a new five-year contract with Durham.
“From my understanding, since that agreement, they’re not allowed to strike this year,” said Dorchester 2 Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke. “We will certainly evaluate it every year.”
The Dorchester 2 board made the decision after an executive session, which attorney Jay Bender said was illegal because the public wasn’t given adequate notice. Bender is the attorney for the South Carolina Press Association.
The Dorchester 2 board’s agenda stated that it would have an executive session for “Durham Bus Company,” but included no further description and failed to designate the item for action.
Two e-mails and three phone calls to Dorchester 2 board Chairwoman Gail Hughes were not returned.
Carina Noble, a spokeswoman for Durham, said the new contract negotiated this past spring includes a no-strike provision that prohibits all work stoppages during the term of the agreement. In addition, the contract includes a binding arbitration procedure for any contract matters that may be disputed, which further ensures labor peace, she said.
“For the upcoming school year, we look forward to being able to focus on what we do best — getting students to school safely, on time and ready to learn,” she said.
Dorchester 2 is in its third year of a five-year deal with Durham.
It has the option to renew or end the contract annually, and it doesn’t have to solicit new bids for transportation services until the end of the five-year period.
District officials have been talking about this issue since March to decide whether they wanted to stay with Durham. The company provides about $500,000 worth of GPS devices, cameras and radios for buses, and those were costs the district would have to bear without Durham, Duke said.
“Other than the strike issue, it was working,” she said.
Any other private company that manages transportation might use unions, and the only way to avoid that would be to go back to the district doing that in-house, which is what the Berkeley County School District does.
The $4.3 million contract would be up for reconsideration June 30, 2014, and gives the company a 2 percent increase. The board also required Durham to provide safety equipment and document training for drivers.
In Charleston, Durham has been managing transportation services since 2007, and its contract is set to expire June 30, 2014.
Mike Bobby, the district’s chief of finance and operations, said he expects the district to begin this fall going through the procurement process for transportation services. It intends to solicit bids for a new contract, but it could decide to extend its contract with Durham.
He wouldn’t discuss how the potential strike would factor into officials’ decision-making, but said they would look at the level and quality of services and determine what would be in its best interest.
The district has been working with the union and Durham since the strike threat ended to improve the conditions that might have caused anxiety or animosity, such as those involving bus safety, maintenance and facility issues at its bus lots.
“We didn’t stop and say ‘We’re done,’” he said. “We started bringing both sides together and working. We, along with Durham, are taking action to do what is fair to improve those conditions.”
Those efforts are one of the reasons he doesn’t anticipate any significant problems, such as a strike, for the upcoming school year.
In Dorchester 2, board member Sam Clark was the lone vote against the contract.
“I’m just not a big union guy,” he said.
Clark recalls his time as an administrator for part of his decision to vote against the motion.
“I thought we always did better when the district was running the buses,” he said. “I thought the buses ran well.”
Board member Charlie Stoudenmire was absent from the vote.
The Teamsters union did not respond to a phone call and email from the newspaper.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.