116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As schools struggle to find adequate staffing for their buses, a local union gave the Cedar Rapids Community School District an “F” grade on fair treatment of bus drivers.
Teamsters Local 238 union members spoke Monday during the Cedar Rapids school board meeting. They asked school officials to reinstate language that was “stripped” from the Cedar Rapids school bus union contract a few years ago, said Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 238 — Iowa’s largest local union.
The union would like to see bargaining reinstated over modified workdays such as school closures, delayed starts and early dismissals; leaves of absences such as illness or disability leave, jury duty and bereavement leave; holidays, health provisions and safety.
This language was removed in 2017 from Iowa Code Chapter 20 when the Legislature rewrote the state’s collective bargaining law. The change allows public employers to voluntarily bargain over formerly mandatory topics. This leaves it up to state or local governments whether to negotiate on these matters.
At the time, Brad Buck was superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
“It’s appalling the district is so tone deaf they’re driving their own employees away,” Case said, calling the district’s treatment of school bus drivers “disrespectful.”
“There’s 40 years of labor relations history in this district, which is now broken,” Case said.
Linda Noggle, Cedar Rapids executive director for talent management, said the district has continued to negotiate in good faith with all unions, including the Teamsters representing employees in the transportation department.
“Any language that was moved from the collective bargaining agreement to the employee handbook occurred only as a result of agreement between (the district) and the Teamsters,” Noggle said in an email Tuesday to The Gazette.
The district “did not take steps to ‘strip’ the contract, as this change was done through the mutual negotiations process,” Noggle said. “Additionally, any language that was removed from the collective bargaining agreement was put into an employee handbook so that transportation employees continued to receive the same employee benefits they have previously received.”
“Over the last five years, (the district) has honored every written agreement entered into with the Teamsters, and the Teamsters have not filed any grievances under the collective bargaining agreement nor any complaints under the employee handbook,” Noggle said. “If any transportation employees have concerns, we always welcome ongoing discussion and collaboration.”
Bus drivers were not paid when the district canceled four days of summer school programming in July because of a cybersecurity breach.
Sally Schaab, a school van driver since 2019, said bus drivers “paid the price” in lost wages because of the cybersecurity breach.
“It’s one thing to lose pay,” Schaab said during public comment at Monday’s meeting. “But when asked if we would be paid, we were informed we are ‘supplemental employees.’ We were demoralized … We have to feel that we’re valuable. Maybe losing four days of pay doesn’t mean much to some, but to many of my co-workers it was a big deal.”
Scott Punteney, business agent with Teamsters Local 238, said the Cedar Rapids school board and superintendent are not “worker friendly.”
“My guess is you support unions when it’s convenient to you … when you want endorsements or to give you credibility in the community,” Punteney said during public comment. “When it comes to caring for workers and treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve, you forget about the promises you made.”
Transportation employees told The Gazette about 60 bus drivers are hired to drive Cedar Rapids students, and 20 more are needed.
Less than two weeks before the first day of school, the district implemented a new route mapping system after the previous system was disrupted by the cybersecurity breach. Systems that diagnose mechanical issues for school buses also were affected, transportation employees said.
In an email to The Gazette last week, Noggle said there is a nationwide staff shortage in school districts, and Cedar Rapids is no exception.
“In these challenging times, our building administrators and teachers step up to determine how to best serve our students and community,” Noggle said.
The district is implementing short- and long-term strategies to close the staffing gap, including offering extra incentives, building substitute pools, asking retired teachers to return and combining classes if needed, Noggle said.
Bus drivers needed in Eastern Iowa
The College Community School District also is struggling to recruit and retain school bus drivers. Over the last two years, the district has decreased the number of bus routes from 44 to 37. To accommodate fewer routes, the school day starts 15 minutes later for elementary and high school students.
There also are more students on each bus — about 60 — with capacity for 78 elementary students, said Kris Hartgrave, College Community transportation director.
As of the end of July, College Community still was in need of two bus mechanics for its three-person department, Hartgrave said. She also would like to be able to hire 15 more school bus drivers.
When asked why it’s hard to recruit bus drivers, Hartgrave said, “I wish I knew.”
Bus drivers are eligible for the Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System and starting wages are increasing. In College Community, the starting wage is $21 an hour, Hartgrave said. This year, they also started offering compensation for years of service at other school districts.
Most bus drivers work about 25 hours a week or five hours a day, but some are taking on additional responsibilities working as custodians or in nutrition services to get paid for more hours worked. Employees are benefits-eligible at 30 hours a week.
Kat Walsh, an administrative assistant in the Marion Independent Community School District transportation department, is working toward her license to drive a school bus so she can substitute for drivers as needed.
Being a bus driver is a “unique, rewarding” opportunity, Walsh said. While she doesn’t get to interact with students much in the transportation office, she is looking forward to getting to know them when she occasionally drives a school bus — on top of her other responsibilities.
“It’s a big transition from minivan to school bus,” Walsh said. “I’m excited to take on the challenge and see what our drivers do every day.”
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