April 10th, 2018
Dear members of the Portland Public Schools Board, and Superintendent Guerrero,
We are the 100+ school bus drivers who provide in-house student transportation services for Portland Public Schools’ special education students. Every day, we safely transport about 600 students with special needs to and from school and their homes, and we do it with skill and pride.
But many of us are barely scraping by on the low wages we receive for this work, and some of us are forced to try and work outside jobs to make ends meet. Some of us work nearly 30 hours a week but receive no health benefits whatsoever, even as driving a bus slowly breaks down our bodies. The status quo is broken, and we need your help.
Special education school bus drivers provide transportation for students with special needs from home to school, which qualifies for a minimum 70% reimbursement of all related costs from the State of Oregon, through the State Schools Fund. That means that for many years Portland Public Schools has received reimbursement for at least 70% of the costs of salaries for drivers, mechanics, routers, supervisors, directors, etc.; the value of acquiring bus vehicles and office equipment; all health and dental benefits; and that’s just to name a few line items. PPS is also reimbursed 30% through Multnomah County for transporting students in foster care.
We are valuable and intricate parts of the PPS family. But because of the work we do, we’re the least costly department for this District to operate. We are, frankly, amazed that you do not want to offer us a livable wage. We are high-quality, professional drivers who connect beautifully with our children. But many of us leave PPS every year because of the low pay. Today, you have an opportunity to show us and the community that the care of our most vulnerable students, and the workers who support them, matter to you.
The contract between school bus drivers and the District expired on June 30th, 2017, and we’ve been working feverishly since then to try and negotiate a fair deal for drivers. The negotiation process has been frustrating, to say the least. At times, your bargaining team has shown up late to negotiation sessions. Some days, the union’s team is forced by the District to negotiate after driving a morning route, or before driving an afternoon one, meaning that sessions are routinely cut short. And it took months before your team would back off on its demand that we accept a two-year pay freeze despite our already-low wages.
Our core issues in this negotiation are reasonable and fair. We are here today, with the support of our fellow unions and our community, to ask you to commit to addressing four key issues:
- Drivers need a fair and livable wage.
The cost of living in this region is skyrocketing. Housing is more expensive than ever – if you can find it – and congestion on our roads means that we’re all paying more out of pocket to get to and from work. But drivers’ wages haven’t kept pace, and many of us are struggling to get by. Some of us work second and third jobs. Others are forced to live outside of the community they serve to afford rent. Some rely on public assistance programs to supplement their income. Virtually all of us are forced to experience the precarity that is living paycheck to paycheck.
At the beginning of negotiations, the District’s position was that you would freeze drivers’ pay for the next two years. While we’re glad that the bargaining team has moved away from that unreasonable demand, the District’s wage proposals have not been much better in the last bargaining sessions. It’s especially shocking because Oregon is in the middle of a profound shortage of professional drivers holding a valid Commercial Driver’s License, meaning that there are more driving jobs in this state than there are professional drivers. This is part of why the District itself is consistently short on drivers as well. However, if you offered a competitive wage, you would be overwhelmed with applications from highly-qualified CDL drivers.
- The District must commit to using Type 10 car and van trips for their intended purpose: eliminating the use of costly private cab trips, and not for replacing bus routes.
Over the last few years, the District has begun ramping up the use of ordinary cars and passenger vans, also called “Type 10 vehicles,” to provide some transportation for SPED students. These vehicles are ordinary, converted passenger vehicles, and they require nothing more than an ordinary driver’s license to operate. When PPS first designed this program, it was clear with the Union about the purpose: to replace the expensive cab rides which can often cost the District up to $500 per student per day. But since Type 10 vehicles were introduced, we have not seen any evidence that even a single cab ride has been replaced by passenger vehicles. In fact, we have seen plenty of our own school bus routes replaced by Type 10 vehicles.
Our school buses are engineered to be some of the safest vehicles on the road, including being easily recognized by other drivers on the road. We, as drivers who possess Commercial Driver’s Licenses, provide safe and professional transportation services to our students. We are deeply concerned about the District’s practice of replacing safe, secure, professional bus trips with Type 10 vehicles. We ask that the District immediately cease using these Type 10 vehicles as replacements for yellow bus routes. Getting students out of expensive cabs is a worthy goal, and it’s what we were promised the Type 10 program would be for.
- Existing Type 10 drivers should be given the opportunity to earn part-time health benefits if they work 20 hours a week or more.
Even as we’re concerned about the ways the District uses Type 10 vehicles, we want to ensure that our sisters & brothers who drive Type 10s are taken care of. Driving any vehicle professionally is hard on the human body. This is back-breaking labor, and it takes a toll on us. But unlike some other PPS employees, Type 10 drivers are not offered health benefits even if they work 30 hours per week. This is despite the fact that, unlike other departments, PPS receives a 70% reimbursement of these costs through the Oregon Department of Education, which means the District is only responsible for bearing 30% of those costs. We believe that offering us the opportunity to purchase insurance if we work more than 20 hours a week (0.5 FTE) make good sense and is a standard that the District uses for other classes of workers.
- Our drivers should have a contractual right to address the Board, like our sisters & brothers at the Portland Association of Teachers.
We have signed up to provide public comment at many of the Board’s meetings since November of last year. Our experience has shown us that the Board’s process for taking public testimony does not work for working folks. Time and time again, we’ve called the Board to ask for time on the agenda for public comments; sometimes, we’re given advance notice that we’ve been approved to speak, while for some meetings, we’re not informed until the day before that we’ve been approved or denied a speaking opportunity. We put our lives on hold for the merest hope that we’ll be given three minutes to address you. We are all professionals who are dedicated to improving the lives of our students. Giving us the contractual right to address you will help us work better and more closely together in the future.
We are more than just disposable cogs in the machines we drive. We are human beings who love our jobs and our students, and we simply want Portland Public Schools to value the work we do day in and day out for vulnerable students.
Please do right by drivers and direct your negotiating team to sign a fair contract.
Respectfully, and in solidarity,
Portland Public Schools Special Education School Bus Drivers
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757