The Unit 5 School Board, now in the middle of contract talks with district bus drivers, voted unanimously Wednesday evening to direct Superintendent Niehaus to solicit bids from private bus companies.
Numerous bus drivers, all members of a new union local, spoke during the public comment session prior to the vote, voicing their opposition to the possible privatization. The bus drivers voted in August to unionize and become an affiliate of the American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
J.B. Johnson, bus driver in Unit 5 for eleven years, said that privatization was tantamount to “performing brain surgery with a sledge hammer.” Ms. Johnson argued that the move amounted to an attack on bus drivers, and that many of the problems within the district’s transportation department are due to the district’s lack of respect for its bus drivers and monitors.
Tom Dixon, a bus driver on the AFSCME negotiation committee, argued that privatization will only hurt the bus drivers and the children who ride the buses.
Mr. Dixon cited, as one major problem, wage rates for bus drivers and bus monitors set at 1960s levels, with paltry yearly raises for bus monitors. He pointed out that low wages fail to attract new recruits, which privatization would not solve. Mr. Dixon also spoke of the committed service of the AFSCME bus drivers, who routinely go back to pick up late children, which he said would not be routine for subcontracted drivers. In his view, privatization will likely result in a deterioration of service, and in the end, could be more costly. Mr. Dixon concluded saying that management is the problem, not the bus drivers.
Some of the bus drivers responded to Superintendent Niehaus’ charge that recent high absenteeism is what is driving the Board’s decision to consider privatization. They said that recent district statistics of driver absenteeism were inflated by including terminated and resigned bus drivers, and that there have been bus drivers terminated unjustly as a result of union activity.
Superintendent Niehaus, just prior to the vote, claimed that the district would continue efforts to negotiate a union contract and that any decision to outsource with a private bus carrier would not happen in the short-term. However, Mr. Niehaus said that the district would look at incoming private bids and compare them with the deal negotiated by AFSCME. This comment, in addition to comments made previously in the media, were interpreted by some union bus drivers and their supporters as a way to gain leverage over drivers in contract talks.
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