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Charlo bus drivers classified as entry-level employees after decades of service

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CHARLO — For more than 30 years, Clyde Olsen has spent his mornings and afternoons carting Charlo schoolchildren to and from school. Over the decades he’s built a relationship with his riders and the community. But when the Charlo district switched from having its bus service contracted through Coulter Automotive beginning this school year, bus drivers felt the significance of those years of service meant nothing as long-time drivers were hired on as state employees of the district’s in-house operation and subjected to a collective union bargaining agreement. 

Under the agreement, Olsen and fellow bus driver Cindy Paulsen, who drove in Charlo district for 18 years under the contract with Coulter Automotive, are considered entry-level employees, despite decades of service. For Olsen, that meant a steep decline in pay, from $15.65 per hour under outside contract to $11.25 per hour under the district’s policies. At a Feb. 18 meeting, Olsen and Paulsen asked the Charlo School Board to reconsider the pay scale for longtime drivers who have served the district, but the board said its hands were tied until next year’s contracts are negotiated this spring. 

“It’s true that Clyde and Cindy are awesome drivers,” Superintendent Thom Peck said. “They have an impeccable safety record. They are great with the kids. They never miss a day of work. They are very, very loyal to Charlo and we depend on them.” 

Despite these facts, Peck said he didn’t feel that the board should break the collective bargaining agreement made with the classified employees union because it could cause trouble for the district. Board members agreed. 

“If we start changing rates on negotiated items, it is a can of worms we open,” Board Chairman Shane Reum said. 

Peck suggested the board go through the current school year without changing Paulsen and Olsen’s pay, work to completely restructure the pay system of the transportation department, which is currently skewed to incentivize being an activity driver instead of a regular route driver. 

Board member Diana Kelley said that was the best course of action. 

“If you look at the number of hours that everybody put in on these collective bargaining agreements – especially when we’re coming up where we are going to start bargaining again in March where we’ve got the chance to go through and fix them – I think (it) undermines the time that everybody put in,” Kelley said. 

Olsen said he didn’t ask about pay when he signed on to drive with the district. 

“When I signed on I really didn’t pay that much attention,” Olsen said. “I enjoy driving the bus. I like kids, but I didn’t pay that much attention to the pay scale.            

“Well, when I started getting (my) checks, then it got to annoy me that my experience meant nothing, zilch.” 

Under the collective bargaining agreement, bus drivers are considered classified employees. They are grouped in with cooks and paraprofessionals in the negotiation process, although Olsen and Paulsen argued that they shouldn’t be because of the differences in training and value of experience in those fields. 

“Say a cook comes in and she’s got 20 years experience cooking at a restaurant,” Paulsen said. “That is not the same as 20 years driving a bus for the same school district.” 

Drivers must undergo a standard driving test, chauffeur test, passenger test, student endorsement test, airways test, CPR training, other medical training, and a drug test. They daily have to deal with children being boisterous, seat-hopping, fighting, and engaging in other distracting behaviors all while ensuring students make it to school and to their homes safely, despite sometimes hazardous road conditions, Olsen said. On top of those circumstances, drivers are sometimes approached by angry parents and guardians. 

“I’ve been threatened to be sued,” Olsen said. “I’ve been threatened to have the s—- kicked out of me … You don’t realize how parents can get when you are fiddling with their cubs.” 

It is very difficult for the district to find reliable bus drivers who have both morning and afternoon availability, according to clerk Sara Vaughan and Peck. Olsen argued that the pay situation doesn’t help matters. 

“You guys have got a fine transportation set up out there,” Olsen told the board. “You have some of the finest buses in the county, but I’m afraid you are lapsing way behind the pay scale for other towns. They are paying $17 or $18 per hour.” 

Olsen and Paulsen also must now give a large portion of their check to the state retirement system that they didn’t have to pay in when they worked for a contract service. They won’t be able to draw full benefits from those retirement contributions until they’ve worked five years for the school district classified as state employees, and not contract workers. 

The board did not look favorably upon granting an exception for Olsen and Paulsen, even if every member of the classified employees union gave a signature of approval. 

“When the chips are down and their feet are put to the fire are they going to say just the bus drivers get the $4.40 raise, or is every cook, every janitor going to ask?” Board Member Danny Krantz said. “Four dollars, forty cents is huge (when multiplied by) every classified employee.” 

Krantz said he didn’t disagree with the argument to pay the drivers more, but that issue should be brought up during negotiations. 

The board has granted exceptions to collective bargaining agreements before. When a cook collected signatures from all union members that OK’d a raise, it was approved. The board also tabled a proposal at the Feb. 18 meeting to grant an exception to the collective bargaining agreement made with the teacher’s union. The proposal was to pay a $25,000 retirement bonus to a 71-year-old teacher who has taught with the district for 11 years. The union’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates that a teacher must serve 15 years with the district in order to receive the bonus, although the board can grant individual exceptions. 

As the board considered granting the exception, Board Member Duane Weible said he could see where the bus drivers might feel angry about approving a $25,000 bonus exception for a teacher, when drivers weren’t given also granted an exception and given a raise. 

“That’s what’s frustrating,” Weible said. 

The board is set to begin union negotiations the first week of March. 


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