State education board approves emergency bus drivers

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- The state Board of Education approved a request Wednesday to allow the use of out-of-state emergency drivers if talks don't progress between Durham School Services and the teamsters union.

The measure allows the school districts to use emergency drivers for 90 days at most.

"Employer-employee relationships can be the most challenging issue for the management of any organization. Both sides should be respectful to each other, both in private and public," said state Superintendent Mick Zais. "However, like a labor dispute in a business, such as a car factory, a steel mill, or even a hotel, customers can be affected. But in this case, the customers are parents who may not have another option to get their child to school."

Zais went on to say everyone involved in the dispute has to put the needs of students above the interests of the people involved in the labor talks.

"I encourage both sides to continue their negotiations, and to negotiate in good faith. But I urge the Teamsters Union not to strike, because a strike will negatively affect parents and students. I repeat: I urge the Teamsters Union not to strike," he said.

"We are advocates for students first," board member David Blackmon said.

The substitute{}drivers would have at least{}five years of driving experience, with at least two driving a school bus, Zais said. They would also have background checks and would meet their home state and federal certification standards.

"The federal government has certified these bus drivers that they are safe. They're thoroughly trained as well as the states they're coming from have certified they're well trained and experienced," he said.

Zais also reinforced support for the state's decentralized bus system, but did acknowledge issues with the state's school bus fleet.

"I do know we have one of oldest school bus fleets in the nation and in fact have requested in the coming fiscal year, an additional $48 million for purchase of new school buses," he said.

Three Lowcountry school districts are affected by the pending strike - Charleston County, Dorchester District 2 and Beaufort.

Charleston County Schools' transportation director sent a letter to the state transportation director last week requesting the use of emergency drivers.

Wednesday afternoon, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Nancy McGinley sent a letter to parents, updating them on the ongoing negotiations.

"Our schools will remain open," she wrote.

She said the district was still working with Durham on an alternative plan, but did not go into detail of what those possible plans are. She did advise parents to start planning for a work stoppage, though.

"Please consider alternative ways to get your child to school in the event of a work stoppage," she said. "By planning ahead and working together, we will maintain our educational programs and manage this situation."

At a press conference in Charleston on Wednesday, CCSD officials said they were already working with police to manage traffic problems in the event of a work stoppage for the drivers. Officials said they are also asking parents to look into alternative ways of getting children to school.

District officials said talks between CCSD and Durham had stopped so that Durham can address similar issues in Dorchester and Beaufort counties.

McGinley said the district might not know about the strike until it happens, but said officials plan on keeping everyone updated through traditional and social media.

Officials said they are also looking into adjusting the school day and changing routes.

The strike, if negotiations fail, could start as early as Jan. 28.