A cautionary lesson on bus privatization
The potential school bus strike facing Charleston and Dorchester 2 school districts couldnít happen in 43 of South Carolinaís 46 counties. Thatís because drivers in all but three districts are public employees and, as such, are forbidden by state law from collective bargaining or going on strike.
But in Charleston, Dorchester 2 and Beaufort districts, the bus systems are operated by contractors, though the buses are owned by the state.
And the contractors operate the bus systems using drivers who are union members. The drivers had not yet chosen to affiliate with the Teamsters when privatization was approved by the school boards in those three districts. Indeed, in Charleston a successful organizing vote was held in 2006, nearly 10 years after privatization. In Beaufort, the union vote was held in 2007 and in Dorchester 2, last year.
Union members voted this month to strike in Charleston and Dorchester 2 if their pay and benefit demands arenít met.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education has authorized an emergency plan to keep the buses running in the event of a strike.
Thatís essential, though it would create problems of its own, since new drivers wouldnít be familiar with the routes. Hopefully, there will be no problems with replacement drivers crossing picket lines, if strikes occur.
It would be even better if the districts didnít have the distraction of pending strikes, or the major headaches that would follow.
Charleston and Dorchester 2 districts are in the unenviable position of facing the consequences of a strike over which they have no control, except to urge the two parties to reach a resolution.
As soon as it is feasible, the school boards in each district should reconsider the possibility of reassuming full authority over the operation of their bus systems.
Privatization has its benefits, but they are quickly outweighed when labor problems complicate the transportation of public school students.
State advocates of school bus privatization, including Gov. Nikki Haley, should acknowledge that lesson and rethink plans to support further privatization.
The possibility of a strike should figure into the cost-benefit analysis of such plans.
Meanwhile, school boards across the state should be paying attention to what is happening in Charleston and Dorchester 2 districts. Certainly officials in Beaufort are paying close attention. Any privatization plans in other districts should be put on hold.
We urge a timely resolution of the dispute. If that fails, there could be troublesome, costly results.
In any event, the public and their elected school board members across the state have been forewarned about the unintended consequences of privatizing a school bus system.