The Ottumwa Courier

October 10, 2013

School bus strike avoided

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Kids continue to see the yellow school buses pick them up. But many parents know about talk of a possible "disruption in service" and that negotiations between the bus drivers' union and the bus company had stalled.

"We have come to an agreement, but it hasn't been signed," said Jerry Kjer, co-owner of Southern Iowa Transit, which is a contracted company working for, among other clients, the Ottumwa school district. "There's some 'Ts' that need to be crossed, that kind of thing, but I'm feeling confident."

At some points over the past several months, management and union leaders were butting heads. At a school board meeting, a union official asked the board of education to "encourage" bus company management to settle with the drivers.

It's unlikely that the recent improvement in relations came from school district pressure, however.

"The board, I think, believed that it's not their role to influence negotiations in a private company," said school district Superintendent Davis Eidahl, who was at that meeting.

That day, Jon Thomas, a Teamsters Local 238 business agent, warned the board that a disruption in services could occur, and that such unpleasantness would affect a large portion of the city, not just the schools.

But, he said, that's not what the union and the drivers wanted. At the time, however, he said they were feeling frustrated, as though management just wasn't listening.

"When we (union and management representatives) met in July, it was not a good experience. But in September, we both said, 'Enough of the bad talk about each other. Enough of the negative [feelings].' Both sides really did, in the 11th hour, come to the table with the intention of coming to an agreement."

Eidahl said he offers compliments to the union drivers and the company managers for their accomplishment.

"Both parties, I think, realized the importance of coming together. Negotiations on both sides have to give a little," he said.

"We're getting along better, and the job [of safely transporting school children] is being done," confirmed Kjer. "That's one of the things you've got to give credit to the staff for; they have always done the job for students. They really care about those children. We all have that in common."

While the newly drawn-up papers haven't been signed, the bus drivers have now voted on the subject.

"I think it's important [to note] that the bus drivers voted unanimously to ratify the contract, 24 to zero," said Thomas.

The previous vote had been unanimous to reject the company offer, officials said over the summer.

"I think level heads were able to prevail on both sides of the table," Eidahl said.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark