Paul Ludington is in his eighteenth year as transportation supervisor for Stevensville School District. Ludington is responsible for supervising and coordinating the transportation program as well as maintaining the fleet of buses. The district owns and operates 10 buses with six drivers covering five daily routes as well as all the extra-curricular activities. Seven additional routes are contracted out to Harlow’s Bus Service.
Harlow’s drivers receive $17.50 per hour. Stevensville School District bus drivers receive considerably less. Last spring before school got out, the district’s drivers got together and decided to ask to negotiate a wage increase. The district negotiation committee, which consists of three members of the school board and the superintendent, eventually settled on a wage amount for daily bus trips to and from school. These wages are funded through the transportation fund by a permissive levy. The district offered a raise of 50¢ an hour plus 25¢ per hour for longevity (new hires would not be eligible for the 25¢ longevity step until the following year).
The drivers agreed to the daily wages offer but negotiations bogged down over extra-curricular trips that are paid out of the general fund. The drivers asked for $15.75 per hour; the school offered $15 an hour plus a $1000 retention payment for each driver. The drivers were adamant that they wanted more per hour for the extra-curricular driving. The committee said in that case the drivers wouldn’t get the $1000. At that point, five drivers walked out of the meeting. A couple of drivers resigned the next day. Negotiations were over.
The school board subsequently formally approved wages for the bus drivers for extra-curricular activities at $15 per hour and $1000 retention payment. At that point, all but one of the drivers resigned.
An emergency school board meeting was held last Friday for consideration of an emergency transportation contract. At that meeting the school board decided to enter into an interim contract with Harlow’s Bus Service. Harlow’s agreed to lease drivers to the school to operate the school’s equipment for 45 days until a new contract could be put out for bid and awarded. Starting September 28, school district routes will be driven by Harlow’s Bus Service drivers using the school district’s equipment. Once a contract is let, that could stay the same or change.
Ludington said he took the accumulated hours of three different school years of activity trips. He averaged the numbers to compare with costs. At $15 per hour for an average of 2537.25 hours of activity trips, the total cost in wages would be $38,058.75. At $15.75 per hour, the total cost in wages would be $39,961.69. So, he says, all of this was over a difference of about $2000.
Ludington said the sticking point for the board appeared to be the percentage of the requested increase. The rate increase being asked for was a 5% increase which the board didn’t want to give. “I’m pretty sure the board didn’t realize how much money they were really talking about,” said Ludington.
Most of the drivers have gone to work for Harlow’s. Ludington says he’s not sure what they will do after the contract is awarded. Most of these drivers are retired and this is supplemental income.
“We’re in a nationwide bus driver shortage,” says Ludington. “Across the country, school districts are short 25% of the drivers that they need. Some states are even using the National Guard.”
Being a bus driver is hard work, says Ludington. Schools have always talked about 180 days of school – for bus drivers it’s 40 weeks, he said, because there’s always something happening on Saturdays. Although drivers often just have to sit around between the to-and-from of activity trips, they absolutely have to be awake and alert to get the students home safely. For example, said Ludington, a recent trip to Butte for a volleyball game went from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. For a football game in Browning, the bus left at 9 a.m. and got back to Stevensville at 3:30 in the morning.
“We’re fortunate here that there are two other Class A schools in the valley, plus Frenchtown only 40 miles away, but there are many long trips too,” said Ludington.
Ludington said with the increase the drivers got for driving to and from school, their wages were now competitive with the other schools in the valley. He said what they were getting before was low. “If they had gotten the raise they were asking for for activities,” said Ludington, “they would have been competitive with that also.”
“I don’t blame the board,” said Ludington, “because they don’t really know what goes on. The drivers have a big responsibility to get the kids home safe. If everything is working well, nobody notices the bus drivers because what they are doing just works.”
Ludington said he’s been told that his contract will be honored for this year, but he doesn’t know what the future holds after that. He’s feeling discouraged by what has happened. “I am disappointed in the direction the board decided to go,” he said.