Mat-Su

Frustration grows in Mat-Su as striking school bus drivers and contractor set to resume negotiations

Bus strike school board meeting

PALMER — As the Mat-Su school bus strike stretched into a third day, bus drivers packed a school board meeting Wednesday evening to vent frustrations and call for district intervention.

Most school board members made it clear they’re not getting involved at this point, despite similar requests from some parents and others in the community.

Teamsters Local 959 bus workers at a contract impasse with Durham School Services walked off the job Tuesday after dropping students at school in the morning, leaving many families scrambling to get children home from school. The strike continued Wednesday and Thursday before union officials announced a resumption of negotiations. There will be no bus service again for most Mat-Su schools Friday, according to district officials.

The local has agreed to return to the bargaining table starting Friday morning, Teamsters spokesman Patrick FitzGerald said Thursday afternoon. A representative of Durham’s parent company confirmed the negotiations.

The walkout halted bus service across most of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, with more than 19,000 students that serves an area roughly the size of West Virginia. Durham services 43 schools. Bus service continues for five schools in the Upper Susitna Valley and for Glacier View, which are serviced by other companies.

Colony High School, bus, school bus, strike

The strike is the latest problem for Durham, the district’s new transportation contractor. The company began the school year with a chaotic start, had a driver charged with sexually abusing a passenger, and struggled to fulfill obligations, leading to more than $1.5 million in lost contract revenues as of January.

Rolling bus cancellations all year were finally expected to end this week — until the strike was called.

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On Wednesday night, bus drivers wearing reflective safety vests described a litany of problems: No outside speakers to talk to children crossing streets; ongoing mechanical problems that crop up on routes; nonfunctional heaters; windshield wipers that can’t handle snow.

Larry Russell, who said he drove tourism buses for 20 years before driving a school bus the last four, said a mechanic couldn’t “clear” his bus after working on coolant and fuel leaks because the computer was down.

Anyone listening to the Durham dispatch radio Tuesday morning would have counted five buses sent out with problems including two without heat and outside temperatures in the 20s, Russell said.

“One route was late by 55 minutes because they didn’t assign a driver until the route was already 30 minutes late,” he told the board. “Those children had been outside at the bus stop with no contact because their parents had had to go to work in Anchorage.”

Durham parent company National Express in a statement Wednesday said the company brought in drivers early to start buses so there was time to address “any cold weather issues,” and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration review in October found the company “had complied with all safety expectations.”

Durham School Services, bus driver, picket, protest, rally, school bus, school bus driver

Bus workers voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike in January after months without a contract. Picketing drivers described compensation below what’s paid to drivers in Anchorage and other parts of the state and no designated bus parking spots at the Wasilla lot, leading to route delays as drivers hunt for the right vehicle.

This week the union faced accusations they “abandoned” students with the midday strike. The drivers’ union representative, however, testified Wednesday that they intentionally picked up students before striking to make sure they were safe at school.

The abrupt cessation of busing led to a more than 4% rise in absenteeism Wednesday, according to district data. District officials say students unable to attend school can make up missed work.

The district in February 2021 awarded Durham a 10-year contract to provide transportation services, replacing longtime contractor First Student. Durham was the lone bidder because First Student didn’t meet bid specifications, officials say.

“You hired this company. Are they fulfilling that contract? No, they are not,” Melody McCullough, parent of a middle-school student, told the board. “You need to take responsibility and enforce Durham’s contractual obligations, including taking care of their employees so we can have services for parents.”

But board members sparred over their authority.

Member Ted Swanson said he wore a red shirt in solidarity with the strikers and urged the district to enforce language requiring Durham to pay wages and benefits that attract and keep workers.

“We’re not keeping drivers, we’re not attracting drivers with a lower wage rate than comparable districts,” Swanson said. “How do we enforce this section of our RFP to Durham in order to get the strike closed?”

The district can put “pressure“ on Durham by making sure the company meets its contract, though the interpretation of that hiring language could be problematic, district Superintendent Randy Trani replied.

Any contract dispute would need to involve legal counsel, said Luke Fulp, the district’s outgoing deputy superintendent of business and operations and the new CFO for the University of Alaska. Durham told the district they are able to recruit drivers, Fulp said.

Longtime board member Ole Larson interjected, saying the board was discussing “a contract we have nothing to do with.”

Member Jubilee Underwood, responding to requests from the public for the board to terminate the bus contract, then asked hypothetically what would happen if the district “fired” Durham.

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Trani answered the district could find itself with no buses even if drivers were available. Larson again interjected, saying any contract discussions would need to occur in closed session with legal counsel.

“We have nothing to do with it,” he said. “And now we are watching a strike between Durham and the Teamsters. That’s all we’re doing.”

Underwood, whose father drove a school bus, said she appreciated the clarity.

“If we cannot legally do that in this moment, that is all that I wanted on record,” she said. “So thank you.”

Officials at Durham parent company National Express say the company will “continue to bargain in good faith” with the union, which they say rejected a final offer that included retroactive pay raises from 8% to 14%, $1,500 to each employee and fully paid weather cancellation days.

A former longtime bus driver testified Wednesday the raise translates to less than $2 on the $13 hourly starting wage for monitors and attendants, and other items except snow day pay and daily guaranteed hours are not “gains” compared to First Student.

Union officials say the bus workers will not resume work until Durham offers a contract that reflects the “value of their workers.”

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Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.