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The company that provides bus services for the Beaufort County School District presented a counterproposal Tuesday to unionized school bus drivers and monitors who voted Monday to authorize a strike should talks fail.
John Elliott, chairman emeritus of Durham School Services, told reporters Tuesday the company offered to increase new drivers' starting pay by 50 cents to $12 an hour.
Average pay for drivers would increase 45 cents to $15.01 per hour. Drivers work at least 4 1/2-hour days, depending on the length of their route, he said.
That would increase driver's pay about 3 to 4 percent. The union had requested a 10-percent pay increase, according to Elliott.
"We think that is very much in line with what is typically being offered in the industry today ... and certainly more reasonable than the 10-percent increase requested by the union," he said.
Elliott said the union did not respond to the proposal.
The drivers and monitors involved in negotiations are members of Teamsters Local 509 based in Columbia. Attempts Tuesday to reach a Teamsters representative were unsuccessful.
About half of the district's 200 school bus drivers and monitors are union members, and have been working without a contract since July.
They joined unionized drivers in both the Charleston County and Dorchester 2 districts, who have also voted to strike if they cannot get more pay and benefits.
The districts, which contract with Durham for bus services, are not part of the negotiations.
Neither Durham nor the Teamsters has set a deadline for a deal, so it's not clear when a strike might start, Elliott said.
He said the two sides meet again Thursday in Charleston to discuss Beaufort County.
"I see no reason why ... we should not be able to get this resolved this week," Elliott said.
However, Durham brought in temporary drivers from out of state Tuesday, with more expected to arrive today, he said, adding the company also continues to recruit new drivers locally.
Should all three school districts strike at once, though, Durham would not be able provide the district the full service -- at least not initially -- Foster said.
"As long as the two sides continue to talk, we remain hopeful that they can reach an agreement," he said. "The one thing no one seems to want is a strike."
Regardless of what happens with contract negotiations between Durham and the union, Beaufort County public schools will remain open, he said.
Durham's proposal did not address other union concerns, including claims of unsafe buses, lack of affordable health insurance and terms of a proposed "no-strike" clause.
In such clauses, typically, the union promises there will be no work stoppages by employees during the life of the contract. In return, management agrees to binding arbitration for grievances.
Employees who violate the no-strike clause could then be fired.
Elliott said the union wants a clause that would allow employees to engage in a "sympathy strike," where local drivers could strike in support of other union drivers involved in a dispute with Durham in other states. Durham adamantly opposes such a provision, he said.
"We want whatever happens to be local to Beaufort, not worry about what takes place outside," Elliott said.
As for the safety of buses, Elliott said Durham's inspection record speaks for itself. It was not clear Tuesday, however, who inspects the company's buses.
Elliott said the state inspects the buses. A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, though, says its transportation office does not inspect or maintain Durham buses.
The state owns 127 of the district's 173 busses, according to school district spokesman Jim Foster. Durham owns 29 and the district owns the rest, Foster said.
"Even though the statewide fleet is the oldest in the nation, the state-owned school buses that transport children to and from school each day are safe," spokesman Jay Ragley said in an email.
S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has requested $34 million for school bus replacement in next year's state budget.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.