Seattle Public Schools: Let’s Keep Our Drivers Happy

Guest post from Kristin King, who mostly blogs at kristinking.wordpress.com

bus strike

Congratulations to the Seattle Public Schools bus drivers, who just won a historic 9 day strike! Drivers were striking in part for affordable healthcare, having rejected a contract that would have offered healthcare to only some drivers but at exorbitant prices–family coverage would cost $1,700 a month for people who earn $2,000 a month. According to the Teamsters,

The new agreement is an overwhelming victory for the group of more than 400 bus drivers. Most of them did not receive healthcare through their employer and did not have access to a reasonable retirement plan. All of that changes with the ratification of this agreement. The agreement provides quality healthcare at an affordable cost. It also provides the bus drivers with a Teamster pension plan . . .

This is a win for students too. Drivers with a better union contract are more likely to stay on the job and build up valuable experience, making buses safer, better disciplined, and more reliable.

Coincidentally, in the midst of the strike I saw a Facebook post from a friend who lives in another town, where the school district contracts out to a number of small companies that hire newcomers to the town and set them on routes with no training: “[The school bus was] 32 minutes late. It arrived 3 minutes AFTER his school day is supposed to start. The Boy hasn’t gotten to school on time ONCE this year so far, on the days he takes the bus.”

That’s unacceptable. When a district cuts corners on the cost of its school buses, it limits kids’ access to learning. Not necessarily every kid, though–just the kids who need the instructional time the most. Plain and simple, not every parent has the means to drive their kids to school.

So this agreement is a step in the right direction, but history tells us we’d better keep a close eye on the school district. Let’s take a look at our history to see how we got to the point of a nine-day strike in the first place, and how to stop it from happening again.

What led us to this point?

When I heard the drivers were going on strike, I thought to myself, “Yep, the district set themselves up for this one all right.” Back in May of 2011, the district was contracting with two companies: Petermann and First Student. Petermann drivers were unionized and more experienced. And the school board brought forward a proposal to discontinue the contract with the Petermann bus company. All the drivers would be laid off. They might get hired back on by First Student–at lower wages, of course.

I was outraged. My children’s bus driver, Nancy, had always been reliable, thoughtful, and responsive. Early on, I brought a bullying concern to her and she solved it right away. I hated to see this happen to her and to all the other drivers. So I wrote a letter to the school board and paid close attention the school board proceedings. Director Betty Patu expressed concerns that while the Petermann drivers were experienced and had a relationship with the kids, some of the newer bus drivers hadn’t been able to control the kids that they pick up. Director Shelley Carr had additional questions about a difference in quality, and Director Harium Martin-Morris raised a concern about the smaller buses that pick up special ed kids. He also thought it was inappropriate to get rid of all the unionized bus drivers.

The vote was close, but the board decided to discontinue Petermann. It was a way, board members said, to “keep the cuts out of the classroom.” They were wrong. Their decision kept the kids out of the classroom.

The following September, on the first day of school, our family waited anxiously at the bus stop for at least a half hour before giving up and driving to school. They were 25 minutes late on the day that’s supposed to set a good tone for the year. But our kids were luckier than the ones that kept waiting: the bus itself was delayed over an hour. This happened to families all over the district, and KUOW ran a program on it. The troubles got sorted out in a few weeks, mostly, but nobody ever got back that lost instructional time. Meanwhile there were other issues. First Student’s school bus routes were a mess, causing more delays. Some got fixed and some didn’t. For instance, the street in front of our house only has room for one vehicle, but buses would go down it from both the north and the south . . . blocking each other. That lasted all year.

Now it’s 2018 and the previously non-union First Student drivers have union representation, from the Teamsters. It turns out that the union-busting on the part of the school district was only a short-term cost-cutting measure. And the district still hasn’t learned an important lesson: going with the lowest bidder hurts the kids.

This strike was predictable

It turns out there’s a pattern. The school district throws everything into chaos by contracting with a cheaper company and bringing on inexperienced, nonunion drivers. Over time, drivers get experience and unionize. Rinse and repeat. This has been happening for decades, at least.

In 1995, 300 bus drivers went on strike over pensions and won.

But in 2002, the school board proposed to take the bus contract from Laidlaw, which was organized by the Teamsters Local 763, and give it to a company with nonunion drivers. The school board meeting then was eerily similar to the one I observed. Here’s a quote from an article in the Socialist Worker:

Speakers stressed both safety and union busting. “The link between inexperienced drivers and children’s safety cannot be underestimated,” said 763 organizer Sarah Luthens. “The top 200 drivers for Laidlaw average over 13 years of experience. The nonunion companies rely mostly on novice drivers. Those school board members who own a $30,000 SUV wouldn’t loan it out to inexperienced drivers, but they would entrust school children to them?”

The school district ended up contracting with two non-unionized companies, Durham and First Student.

In 2007, by the way, Laidlaw merged with FirstGroup, raising antitrust concerns. These were settled with a consent decree stipulating that other contracting companies would have access to many districts, including Seattle.

That brings us back to 2011, when the school district cancelled its contract with Petermann.

And from there, to 2017, when the Seattle school board decided which contracting company to use. It turns out, according to a December 16th school board action report, that FirstStudent was the only one to apply. How on earth did it end up with a monopoly? Oh, right. Seattle cancelled its contract with Petermann.

So you might think the school district didn’t have much choice, but it turns out they did have the opportunity to expand medical coverage. This from the action report:

The District requested pricing to gauge the cost of extending health care benefits to those drivers who work less than 30 but more than 20 hours per week. Unfortunately, the pass through cost for the District to broaden First Student’s bus driver participation in healthcare coverage is cost prohibitive, especially when the District is facing a $74 million dollar shortfall. Expanding bus driver health care coverage would increase this contract by $1.7 million annually and not recommended.

In hindsight, that was a mistake, and it cost our students.

Race you to the bottom!

Back to my friend’s story, with her son that has been late every single time he takes the bus–that’s what our district is going to get if it keeps chasing bargain-basement prices. Let’s not do that.

Who’s to blame here?

The strikers were picketing First Student, as well they should. This is not the first time First Student has given school bus drivers a raw deal. They should know better.

Beyond First Student, though, the school district is responsible. It’s the district’s job to secure the funding needed and to spend it appropriately. Since the funding comes from the state, the district should be telling the state when it hasn’t got enough money to pay its bus drivers.

The state is even more responsible. Bus service is part of the McCleary lawsuit because it is considered integral to basic education. After all, if a child can’t get to school, they can’t access education. As the cost of living goes up–including medical expenses–and the number of students increase, the district is going to need more and more money. Instead it’s getting less. From the same school board report I mentioned above:

The State uses a reimbursement formula that pays out the lesser of the previous year’s actual or current year projected costs.

So if the district is negotiating a contract that’s more expensive than the previous one, the state won’t pay the difference. That’s a lot of pressure to keep costs low. On the other hand, in theory, if the district secures the funding for one year, that funding will carry over for the next. So in the long term, it’s fiscally irresponsible.

Enough is enough!

What to do now

Now’s the time to celebrate our bus drivers’ win. But let’s also prepare for the next time the school district tries to cut costs on bus service. When this contract expires, we’ll be watching.

Let’s keep the district honest.

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