— By SALLY SEXTON
In the start of the new school year about a month away, students may not be the only ones starting off a “new” year.
Bus drivers within the Weatherford school district recently signed a five-year contract with First Student Inc. following two days of negotiations.
First Student Inc., hailed as the largest school bus operator in North America, was offered a five-year contract with Weatherford ISD during an April 16 trustee meeting. WISD had previously contracted with Durham School Services since the 1988-89 school year.
“When we met with [First Student], they told us we would have a contract before school started and they were true to their word,” said Lori Kitts, a driver and member of the Weatherford union negotiating team.
In May of 2012, Weatherford bus drivers and monitors voted to form a union, the first in Texas, and joined the Transport Workers Union of America after expressing displeasure over lack of benefits, pay, respect and others.
In March, the group voted to authorize the right to strike after months of failed negotiations for a new contract with Durham.
“We took experience from those negotiations with Durham into our talks with First Student,” Dan Linden, another driver and union negotiator, said. “We already had a lot of the legwork done, plus we have seen what some of the First Student contracts in other areas looked like.”
According to Kitts, many of the groups issues have been addressed by First Student, including more safety training, newer buses and an increase of $2 more per hour in wages for new hires.
“The First Student buses aren’t as aged,” Kitts said. “Some of their oldest ones are three to five years rather than 12. And more than half of the buses will also come with air conditioning.”
“Safety of the kids was one of our big priorities,” driver Nikki Norman said. “And with the extensive training that we’ve already been through, you can tell that First Student is very safety conscious.”
One of the other changes for Weatherford drivers and monitors will be a decrease in management, with staff reporting to one boss.
Drivers and officials with First Student have already had several meetings, with events like an ice cream social and kickoff meeting scheduled in August to get to know each other better.
“They have shown us respect, not just told us,” driver Peggy Linden said. “The morale has gone from the very bottom straight through the roof.”
“Our future is so bright now that we’re going to have to wear extra-strong sunglasses,” Norman added.
Based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, First Student is expected to provide its own fleet of 53 buses, each equipped with GPS tracking systems, Child Check-Mate electronic reminder systems and crossing gates to allow children to cross in front of the bus at a safe distance. Buses serving the district will also have cameras to monitor onboard activities.