The threat of a school bus driver strike has prompted Charleston County schools’ leader to express her concern for the students, families and drivers who could be affected.

The issue

What is the problem?Charleston County School District hired Durham School Services to employ its bus drivers and manage its bus routes. Durham has been negotiating a new employment contract with drivers since last summer, but they’ve been unable to make a deal. Drivers agreed last week to authorize a strike if they can’t reach an agreement.What’s next?Negotiations between Durham and the bus drivers union were scheduled for Monday and today. A deadline for a deal has not been set, but Durham has promised to come up with a contingency plan should drivers strike.

Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley has asked the company that employs the drivers, Durham School Services, to take whatever steps necessary to avoid the strike.

“Our students cannot afford to miss any instructional time and families should not have the continued burden of worrying about safe and consistent transportation for their children,” she wrote in a letter last week to Durham Chief Executive Officer David Duke.

Durham School Services employs more than 400 Charleston school bus drivers, and it hasn’t been able to reach an agreement with them on a new employment contract. The biggest hang-up has been how much drivers should be paid.

The drivers’ union, Teamsters Local 509, agreed Jan. 15 in a 186-0 vote to authorize a strike if they are unsatisfied with the deal. Negotiations were scheduled for Monday and today.

Neither Durham nor the union would disclose how much drivers are being paid now, nor how much Durham has proposed raising their salaries. Durham officials said they prefer to negotiate privately rather than through the media.

“While we are unable to meet demands for an increase many times above the national average, we remain both optimistic and determined a deal can be completed and look forward to our meetings with the union next week,” said Carina Noble, a spokeswoman for Durham.

Noble said the company was disappointed to learn of the potential strike through the media and would do all it can to ensure Charleston students’ bus service is not interrupted.

L.D. Fletcher, president of the local union, said it was too early to say how much drivers make, but he promised to disclose that information “when the time is right.”

“We don’t have anything to hide,” he said.

Bus drivers’ pay can’t be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request because it involves a private company and its employees. Durham’s advertisements for drivers don’t list pay ranges.

McGinley said in her letter she wanted to ensure drivers were treated fairly. Many are parents of local students and longtime community residents, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, she wrote.

Durham has promised to create a contingency plan should drivers strike, but McGinley wrote she would “hate to see you bring in replacement drivers if a fair settlement can be reached with drivers who are loyal and care about children.”

McGinley also wrote that she was troubled about drivers saying their repair requests are being ignored.

Fletcher said he was pleased with McGinley’s letter and it was good for the district to put pressure on the company to negotiate a good and fair contract.

“I think it’s the right thing for the district to do,” he said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.