Dayton bus strike looms. Lolli tells parents: ‘We want your children in school’

Students board buses Thursday at Edwin Joel Brown Middle School in Dayton. Dayton Public Schools bus drivers have filed a strike notice that would take effect April 10. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Students board buses Thursday at Edwin Joel Brown Middle School in Dayton. Dayton Public Schools bus drivers have filed a strike notice that would take effect April 10. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Three years after Dayton’s school bus drivers narrowly averted a strike with a last-minute agreement, Dayton Public Schools is on the same path again as families head into spring break.

The school district’s drivers have filed a 10-day strike notice that would take effect Tuesday, April 10. That is DPS’ second day back from spring break, and just as students are about to begin important state testing.

Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the ball is in DPS bus drivers’ court, because “the district has given all we can give at the bargaining table at this point.”

THE LAST TIME: Timeline of DPS’ 2015 strike threat from drivers

Union officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday, leaving the next steps of the process unclear. Lolli said as of midday Thursday, no further negotiating sessions had been scheduled.

Lolli would not go into detail about Dayton Public Schools’ plan to get students to school if a strike does take place, saying it was still a work in progress, and would be communicated to families when it was ready.

“We want your children in school, and we’re going to work hard to make sure they arrive at school safely,” Lolli said, suggesting that hiring of contracted drivers is possible, but so is carpooling. “If parents want to transport their students, we will have extra personnel outside to control traffic.”

RELATED: Bus drivers were “not optimistic” even months ago

Lolli said the district has offered 10 to 15 percent raises to the drivers, which would take their starting pay from $13.85 per hour to roughly $15.75. That would still leave DPS behind surrounding districts such as Mad River, Huber Heights and others, which pay starting drivers more than $18 per hour.

DPS Associate Superintendent Shelia Burton said that comparison may not be fair, suggesting that in some cases, DPS offers better benefits and more guaranteed hours per day, making up for the hourly wage difference.

Burton said DPS currently transports just more than 10,000 students per day to its own kindergarten through eighth-grade schools as well as to charter and parochial schools within the school district boundaries. She said there are 155 drivers available to cover 143 routes.

FIRST REPORT: DPS seeks alternate plan as drivers file strike notice

The market for school bus drivers is tight, locally and nationally. Kettering schools has a sign on busy far Hills Avenue asking people to apply to be bus drivers. Beavercreek schools’ superintendent and other administrators recently did training to drive buses if necessary, because of the shortage.

The Dayton area‘s warehouse and logistics businesses have expanded in recent years, creating truck driving jobs that don’t have the odd hours, disciplinary role and sometimes lower pay of school bus driving.

Lolli said Thursday she’s not exactly sure which sticking points remain. She claimed union bargaining officials had repeatedly said they were close and just needed “one more thing” to get a deal done, but when the district agreed to compromise, the full union membership rejected three separate offers.

RELATED: Key questions about Dayton Public Schools bus driver issue

Phone and electronic messages seeking comment were left with both the local and state offices of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, as well as with three individual representatives of that group, which represents the drivers.

“If the money supply was endless in a school district, when someone says, just pay them, you could just pay them,” Lolli said. “However, when your money is limited, as ours is – we have not had a levy since 2008 in the school district — you watch your money carefully. … I don’t think that I have a magic wand to be able to do anything more than what the budget allows us to do at this point in time.”

A few days before this school year started, DPS had not reached agreement on new contracts with any of its 11 unions. The teachers union filed a strike notice but then settled on a new contract a few days before the school year began.

LAST FALL: On-time performance improves for Dayton school buses

Other employees began the school year under the terms of expired contracts. Since then, agreements have gradually been reached with all except the bus drivers. No work stoppages have occurred.

DPS officials said they offered a lump sum payment to cover raises that otherwise would have been in effect this school year. It is unclear whether the form of that “retroactive pay” was an issue for the union. Lolli said time clock procedures had also been a sticking point at one phase of negotiations.

FOLLOWING THE STORY

Previously: Dayton school bus drivers have been working under an expired contract all school year as drivers and the district could not reach a new deal.

What's new: Drivers filed a notice of intent to strike April 10. DPS says it has offered large raises to drivers, whose wages had been comparatively low. Drivers are not talking publicly.

What's next: DPS says it is trying to come up with a backup busing plan to cover the 10,000-plus DPS, charter and Catholic school students who ride DPS buses every school day.