[UPDATED 9:10 p.m.]
The following statement was received from First Student Inc. Director of Media Relations Maureen Richmond on Thursday afternoon.
"We have been negotiating in good faith with union representatives and are focused on reaching a resolution that is fair and equitable. We have negotiations scheduled for September 28. We have received no indication that there will be any interruption in service.
"We would never put a bus on the road unless we were confident in its safety. We maintain extra buses at each facility so there are no interruptions in service in the event maintenance needs to be done.
"At First Student, we perform regular scheduled maintenance and ongoing vehicle maintenance checks to ensure our buses are in top running condition. Each of our school buses follow a stringent daily, monthly and annual vehicle maintenance program.
In addition, each driver conducts a multi-point inspection prior to beginning his route, using the latest electronic equipment to ensure the bus is in proper operating condition. The safety of each student is a responsibility we take very seriously."
[UPDATED 12:10 p.m.]
Assistant Superintendent for Administration for West Hartford Public Schools Tom Moore said Thursday morning that he has not been notified of any safety concerns by First Student Inc. drivers.
"No driver has ever contacted me or anyone in West Hartford to deal with concerns. We are in constant communication with First Student, and bus safety is our first priority," Moore said.
"Any time I am presented with or notified of a suggested problem with a bus, I am immediately on the line to make sure the bus is taken out of service until it is corrected. [First Student has] been very responsive to me," said Moore. The only problems he has ever been made aware of have been mechanical, not at all safety-related.
He confirmed that the contract between West Hartford Public Schools and First Student Inc. expires at the end of this year, and evaluation of the company's service will continue to be reviewed as the administration begins the process of contract negotiations.
First Student Inc. school bus drivers who handle bus routes for all may soon be walking a picket line rather than picking up students.
Officials from CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, the union representing the drivers contracted to work for First Student Inc. in West Hartford, announced this morning that on Wednesday school bus drivers "voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike if an agreement cannot be reached."
The problem is not with the contract between West Hartford Public Schools and First Student. "That contract is fine. It's an issue between First Student and its drivers. The union represents the drivers, who work for First Student," said CSEA Communications Director Ben Phillips.
However, according to a news release issued by CSEA, the drivers' concerns include safety issues as well as payroll problems. Drivers have reported problems with buses which, according to CSEA, have not been addressed and have resulted in fines from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The CSEA news release includes the following statement from West Hartford driver Wanda Cobbs: “We tell them when the buses aren’t working properly, for instance when a stop sign isn’t working. First Student Inc. will say they’ll correct the problem but the next day the problem hasn’t been fixed ... but if you don’t drive the bus, you don’t get paid.”
Inconsistencies in the calculation of time worked, according to CSEA, is also a major concern of the drivers and a factor in the vote to strike. The release quotes Cobb as saying, "They can tell when we’re early but not when we get in later, so we get docked a few minutes here and a few minutes there and it adds up. Occasionally we lose 2 or 3 hours of pay in a check. Sometimes they correct it and sometimes you simply don’t get paid."
According to Phillips, if drivers strike it will be up to First Student to find substitutes. "It is too soon to tell whether an agreement will be reached," he said. Negotiations betwen CSEA/SEIU 2001 and First Student Inc. will resume on Sept. 28, and no strike deadline has yet been set.
The union is also in negotiation on behalf of school bus drivers in Shelton and New Haven.
This story will be updated with reaction from West Hartford Public Schools as soon as officials are available for comment.