The Ottumwa Courier

September 10, 2013

Union bus drivers want school district support

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — A union representing school district bus drivers is reaching out to the school board for help in negotiations with the bus company the district uses for transportation services.

Drivers attended the school board meeting this week to explain what they are asking for from Southern Iowa Transit, which, for several years, has been the district's busing service. Several drivers addressed the board for about three minutes each during the “communication with the public” portion of the meeting. The school bus drivers formed a union in February, Jon Thomas said.

The way negotiations are going now, "there definitely could be a disruption in service,” said Thomas, a Des Moines organizer and business agent for Teamsters Local 238.

That’s not what they want, he said, but if it does happen, it would impact more than just parents of school-aged children.

“This would affect 90 percent of the community,” said one speaker.

Several said salary isn’t their biggest concern. Thomas told the board one major sticking point is that the company won't give employees three days of paid bereavement leave. Negotiations have managed to get Southern Iowa Transit to one paid day and two unpaid days when an immediate family member of an employee dies.

This trouble with contract negotiations is about respect, Thomas and the drivers said. That includes fairness in discipline and other non-monetary issues.

One of the drivers told the school board how bus drivers care about the children and the parents. The kids run up and say hello when they see their driver out in public.

In fact, a speaker Monday night said he had heard a rumor circulating before school started. It implied Ottumwa bus drivers would just refuse to drive on the first day of school. This group wouldn't do that to the kids, he said, because that's who would have suffered. He explained that suddenly “not showing up” isn’t an option because the drivers are not the kind of people to leave their students standing on the corner, waiting and waiting for a bus that never arrives.

"We love our job," he said.

But the drivers do want help.

They may not be complaining, said Wapello County Supervisor Steve Siegel, about the money. But you need to know, he told the board, that bus drivers in surrounding communities are better paid and receive better benefits — even in small districts. Siegel works for a union and has conducted negotiations with the district in the past. He said he was recently made aware of the drivers' concerns.

"These bus drivers are not property of Southern Iowa Transit," added Thomas.

If they do "belong" to anyone, he said, it's the community.

The administrators running the district don't have time to worry, he continued, about how to pick up all the students needing transportation using the five bus drivers they would have if the union drivers did not have a contract. So if the school board could encourage Southern Iowa Transit to settle, all such trouble could be avoided.

School board members asked if Thomas could get them a chart showing pay and benefits in surrounding school districts. Thomas immediately agreed to send such a list to the district.

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

The board took other action as well at their meeting. But two of those "actions" included hearing from other speakers during the public communication part of the meeting. They heard from parents and teachers who didn't like the idea that the Ottumwa High School graduation ceremony could be moved to Friday evening. One speaker said graduations are important enough that they draw family from out of town and out of state. For those people to be in Ottumwa Friday, some would have to miss a day of work on Thursday and Friday. The board did vote on the "school calendar" item, and ruled that graduation would continue to be held on Sunday. The first speaker of the night warned that the district could be opening itself up for liability issues revolving around nutrition. He suggested that students learn better when healthy, and a good way to keep kids healthy is with a fruit snack. He explained that all children in all buildings should receive the same nutrition during the day --- breakfast, lunch and a snack, hopefully fruit. He believed that is not currently the case. If it's not, the district could be seen as discriminating against the students in some schools.