PALMER — School bus drivers in Mat-Su voted Tuesday to strike and walked off the job over a contract dispute with Durham School Services, the sprawling district’s new transportation contractor.
The decision throws school transportation across a region the size of West Virginia into turmoil. Most schools will be without bus service again Wednesday, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District officials.
The strike, called midmorning Tuesday with classes underway, left most schools in the district of more than 19,000 students scrambling for a way to get children home Tuesday afternoon.
The union action does not pertain to schools in the Upper Susitna Valley and Glacier View areas, which are served by Bunker and Bunker and Glacier View Transportation, officials say.
The strike vote took place after the union and Durham returned to the bargaining table Monday after failing to come to an agreement during negotiations in January.
Teamsters Local 959 issued a statement Tuesday morning announcing that the bus workers “have officially left work on an unfair labor practice strike. The bargaining committee received a last, best, final offer from Durham. That offer was shared with the membership, and the near-unanimous decision to strike was made.”
Drivers chose to strike after they picked up students on their morning routes, the union said, acknowledging that the strike “will inconvenience families” but asking that the community “stand with school bus workers in solidarity.”
“Student safety is the top priority for school bus workers and continual issues surrounding buses have not been addressed by Durham,” the union’s statement said. “Hours of planning and consideration were spent before the decision of when to start the strike.”
The Mat-Su School Board in 2021 approved a 10-year contract for Durham worth at least $188 million and as much as $220 million to take over from longtime bus provider First Student. Drivers and other bus employees have been working without an updated contract since Durham took over in August.
Mat-Su bus drivers have not gone on strike since organizing with the Teamsters in 2009, union spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said. The union hasn’t been involved with a strike since 1997, Fitzgerald said.
The walk-off was not entirely unexpected. The union representing the drivers, monitors and attendants voted nearly unanimously this month to authorize a strike, a warning that such an action could be imminent. Drivers picketed outside Durham’s bus barn last week, describing pay and safety concerns including non-working heaters and windshield wipers.
Schools in Mat-Su will remain open for in-person learning rather than shifting to remote plans, officials said following the strike announcement.
That leaves parents and guardians responsible for transporting students to and from school, as well as for school-related activities, the district said in a statement late Tuesday morning.
“We are disappointed to report that the local Teamsters Union, representing bus drivers and attendants working for Durham School Services, chose to strike with no advanced notice to the District after delivering students to school this morning,” district officials said.
“We’re sorry to inform you of this inconvenience, and hope that the situation between Durham School Services and the Teamsters Union can be resolved as soon as possible,” the statement also said.
With schools slated to be open Wednesday, just Glacier View School, Susitna Valley Junior/Senior High, Talkeetna Elementary, Trapper Creek Elementary and Willow Elementary will have bus service, according to an update from the district.
Durham has struggled to provide regular bus service since taking over the district transportation contract at the start of the school year, when a problem-plagued rollout earned community and district censure. The company has lost more than $1.5 million in revenues so far this school year, a deficit district officials say reflects missed routes amid bus and driver shortages plus estimated damages due to service deficiencies.
Durham’s parent company National Express in a statement emailed late Tuesday accused the union of abandoning students and said the company is working with the district “on staffing plans and coverage for the school days ahead” with the goal of minimizing disruption. Some employees have said they intend to keep working, the company said.
Durham will continue to bargain in good faith with the union, which rejected what National Express described as several attempts to bring in a federal mediator, the statement said. It said the company’s final offer included retroactive pay raises from 8% to 14%, $1,500 to each employee and fully paid weather cancellation days.
Fitzgerald, the union spokesman, said late Tuesday that there were no negotiations scheduled: “We are officially on strike and will remain on strike until Durham offers us a contract that will reflect the value of their workers.”
He said the company attempted to bring in a mediator without a full proposal.
The union has filed several cases before the National Labor Relations Board alleging refusal to bargain or bargaining in bad faith. Nationally, more than 600 cases have been filed against Durham.
Word of the last-minute change of transportation plans for students rippled through school families as working parents and guardians juggled jobs with picking up their children.
One parent expressed anger Tuesday over the strike decision and the union’s contention that they prioritize student safety when their action leaves students, especially elementary-aged ones, without a sure way to get home.
Families in Mat-Su have contended with rolling no-bus days through the year with Durham, said Dan Goff, a medical administrator with children at Palmer Middle and High schools.
Now the total lack of bus service comes as a major disruption that goes beyond inconvenience, Goff said.
“This could limit services available to our community because people working in our ER might have to go get their kids now,” he said, adding his company has the flexibility to support parents, while many others might not. “The whole year has been a challenge. This is just the icing on the cake.”