Danville district weighing options in face of possible bus driver strike

Danville district weighing options in face of possible bus driver strike

DANVILLE — Officials on both sides of a First Student bus-driver contract dispute said they're hopeful they can reach an agreement without resorting to a strike that would leave thousands of Danville students without a way to get to school or school-related activities.

Meanwhile, Danville schools officials are weighing their options in the event of a strike, including closing the schools until the contract is settled.

The private bus company provides transportation to the "vast majority" of Danville's 6,000 students — not only to and from school daily, but also for after-school and extracurricular activities.

Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 26 in Champaign — which represents about 110 drivers, monitors and mechanics — said their four-year contract expired Aug. 15.

First Student and the union opened negotiations in the spring and have had at least half a dozen sessions, according to Tim Donovan, its secretary/treasurer and business agent. The last involved a federal mediator.

Donovan, who is not a First Student employee, said sticking points are raises and holiday pay. Currently, union members only get one paid holiday.

He said members voted to go on strike some time ago. The two sides are currently in a 21-day "cooling off" period, which is set to end Nov. 2.

If a settlement isn't reached by that time, members could walk off the job as soon as Nov. 3, which has school officials worried.

However, Donovan said a strike hasn't been authorized yet.

He and Chris Kemper — a spokesman for Cincinnati-based First Group America, First Student's parent company — said the two sides are set to return to the table on Oct. 30. Both are hopeful they can hammer out an agreement that's fair to both sides.

"I think it's a very good possibility," Donovan said Thursday.

"The important thing here is nothing is imminent," Kemper said of a walkout. "We have a very strong relationship with the Teamsters. We respect our employees' rights to collective bargaining, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith.

"We understand the concern this can cause for everyone in the community," Kemper continued. "Our goal is steadfast — to continue to provide the best possible transportation service we can provide and to reach an agreement with the Teamsters."

While school officials are also hoping that happens, they said they have to prepare for the possibility of a walkout, said Superintendent Alicia Geddis. They consulted with the Regional Office of Education and examined three options: having parents transport their children, using the Danville Mass Transit service at a few centralized locations and closing the schools until the dispute is resolved an agreement is reached.

In a letter to parents sent home with students on Friday, she said the first two aren't ideal "as there are legitimate concerns about student safety, consistent student attendance, cancellation of student programming (pre-K, extracurricular and after-school activities) and overall impact to our students' learning. It appears that we may be forced to close school should the strike begin on (Nov. 3)."

"It's not a good option, but it's the best of all three," said school board President Bill Dobbles.

"At least students wouldn't lose any days of instruction," Dobbles continued, pointing out any missed days would be made up. "We have five built into the calendar. If it exceeds that, we would have to amend the calendar and go into June.

"If anyone can come up with any other ideas, we'll listen," he added.

Dobbles said closing the schools would be a major inconvenience to parents. It wouldn't be good for students, either.

He pointed out there are so many days teachers have to get students ready for semester exams, which take place before Christmas break.

"If we missed several days, what would that do to exams? Maybe they'd be at the same time, but maybe they'd have to be rescheduled. That's a real question," Dobbles said.

Another question: How would students get to events, such as football playoffs or a show choir competition, hours away?

"A strike could happen right during the second round of football playoffs," Dobbles said.

Geddis said the contract dispute is out of the district's control.

"They are an independent outside contractor," she said of the bus company. "We don't come to the table to participate."

Still, Dobbles said officials had been following the progress.

"We thought maybe it was going to be settled, but for some reason, it's not," he said.

Dobbles — who taught at Danville High School for 37 years and has served on the board for 10 years, including eight as president — recalled the last bus driver's strike occurred in the early 1970s.

"At that time, we owned our own buses. You could get a license, so our administrators drove the buses," said Dobbles, who couldn't remember how long the walkout lasted.

"We're just hoping the two sides can get together and work out a solution that works for everybody."