School bus drivers, state representatives and labor organizers raised concerns Monday about school bus safety, charging that the company tasked with running Charleston County’s fleet is not keeping up with repairs.
Bus driver Kathy Richardson said there are ongoing problems with buses with broken windows, broken heaters and mechanical issues. In one instance, Richardson said a driver reported that a bus horn didn’t work, but was told by a supervisor to drive the bus anyway.
“It’s just a lot of issues that they don’t fix it when you tell them,” said Richardson, who’s been driving a bus in Charleston County for nine years.
Richardson was among several bus drivers who spoke out Monday at a community forum sponsored by Rep. Wendell Gilliard and the Teamsters Local 509 of West Columbia. Many of the issues raised were regarding Durham School Services, which provides school bus transportation for Charleston County schools.
The forum coincides with a pending contract award from the Charleston County School District for a new multi-year contract for school bus services. Contract proposals from transportation companies were due last month, but it’s unclear when the School Board may award a new contract.
The school district has had a contract with Durham School Services since 2007. The School Board voted last year to extend the district’s contract with Durham for one year while the district worked to resolve possible union contract issues arising from a new transportation contract. The district’s current contract with Durham will end on July 1.
Durham has had ongoing labor disputes with the local union and drivers. The company is involved in two pending federal lawsuits regarding labor disputes. The company narrowly avoided a strike in 2013 after it negotiated a five-year labor contract.
Durham spokeswoman Molly Hart said that the issues raised at Monday’s meetings were not among those drivers raised when Durham negotiated the labor contract with the union in 2013.
“None of these issues were brought to our attention when we negotiated the current labor contract,” Hart said.
Bus driver Evelina Moultrie said there are chronic problems with buses not being properly fueled and running out of diesel as they’re arriving at schools. Driver Latrisha Pringle said on one occasion her bus shutdown on train tracks while she was driving on Remount Road in North Charleston.
Pringle said there are ongoing problems with buses having no heat, breaking down and issues of overcrowding.
“We face that every day,” Pringle said.
Roughly two-thirds of Charleston County’s bus fleet is owned and maintained by the state. The district has a total of 328 state-owned buses of which 188 are more than 16 years old. Durham operates 126 buses in Charleston County. By contract the average age of a Durham bus cannot exceed seven years.
Leonard Riley, a member of the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, said the Charleston County School Board has not been responsive to the bus drivers’ complaints. Bus drivers and Gilliard raised similar concerns last year before the School Board extended Durham’s contract, but little has changed, said Riley.
“Durham has to go,” Riley said.
Two members of British Parliament visiting South Carolina at the invitation of the Teamsters union were also in attendance at Monday’s forum, saying they planned to put pressure on Durham’s parent company United Kingdom-based National Express to promote better labor practices for its American subsidiary.
Gilliard said he hopes this year the school board will listen to the bus drivers and consider their concerns when awarding a new transportation contract.
“Who better knows the issues than the people who are driving the buses,” Gilliard said.