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'Transportation of landscaping equipment, hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets has more value than transportation of our most vulnerable students,' union leader Beth Blumklotz said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Members of ATU 757 sit in the audience of a July 24 Portland Public Schools board meeting. The special education drivers are threatening to strike. As the school year approaches, special-education bus drivers in Portland are threatening to strike over wages.

The drivers, who transport Portland Public Schools children who are medically fragile, disabled, homeless or in foster care, say they are fed up with a district that doesn't value them.

Portland Public Schools has been negotiating for more than a year with Amalgamated Transit Union 757 to resolve a contract for 2017 to 2019. The yellow-shirted union members have shown up to board meetings for months, complaining that the district is offering wages far below what it pays workers transporting school lunches and maintenance equipment.

"In a public agency where we should be celebrating diversity and promoting education for everyone, the board's message is clear — transportation of landscaping equipment, hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets has more value than transportation of our most vulnerable students," union leader Beth Blumklotz said.

To back up her claim, Blumklotz pointed to the district's contract extension with a different union, which gave those truck drivers $24.40 per hour this year.

The district's current offer is a 3 percent raise retroactive to last year and a dollar or two more (depending on experience) per hour for 2018-19. That would put the 2018-19 pay at $17.96 to $25.05 per hour. The drivers are bargaining for more like $21.32 to $31.10 for this school year and $21.96 to $32.03 for 2019-20. (See both positions here.)

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Members of ATU 757 sit in the audience of a July 24 Portland Public Schools board meeting. The special education drivers are threatening to strike. Despite the impasse, late at night on Tuesday, July 24, the school board voted to unilaterally implement part of the district's latest offer to special-education drivers. Board chair Rita Moore said the district needed to be able to offer the base rate in order to start hiring more drivers for the new school year.

"We're still in the middle of negotiations," Moore said.

Blumklotz said that action was hypocritical and disrespectful because the workers have always gotten pushback when they argued that they needed higher wages to attract and keep drivers.

"Every single year, we've been short drivers," she said. "We are not paid enough — for the city we live in, for the job that we do — to hire, attract and maintain quality drivers."

Drivers say their work — the long miles, the unusual conditions and essentially being a one-to-one caregiver for the duration of the journey with a special-needs child — deserves a premium. They also say that the cost of living in the city is much too high to get along on what the district is offering.

"Not only is implementing wages for these amounts wrong, it's still not a livable wage," Blumklotz said.

The district contracts out most bus services, through a $150 million contract with First Student and a $2.9 million contract with TriMet. Those drivers are with the same union, ATU 757. Yet First Student's pay scale this year goes from $18 per hour to $21.41 per hour. TriMet drivers earn $16.62 per hour to $30.19 per hour and will get a 3.25 percent raise in December.

The David Douglas School District, which offers $1,500 signing bonuses, pays bus drivers between $17.91 to $22.82 per hour.

"We have quality, wonderful drivers who leave because they can't afford to stay," Blumklotz said.

PPS pays about $2 million per year to directly employ about 100 drivers for its unique needs transporting special-education students. The Oregon Department of Education confirmed that 70 percent of PPS' costs for special-education transportation are reimbursed from the state, regardless of how much it pays drivers. (Every district in the state gets reimbursed between 90 to 70 percent of special-education transportation costs.)

"The district, they don't get it. They don't get it at all," Blumklotz said. "They do not care about the transportation of special-education students."

Board chair Moore said they do care. "I think it's fair to say that there's a universal recognition that these drivers provide an invaluable service to students," she said.

But, Moore added: "We want to be able to arrive at a contract that will reflect their value to the district and also be financially doable."

The union does not have an exact date for when they would strike. The next scheduled mediation session is Aug. 16.

The conflict here may be reaching a fever pitch, but the problem is not unique to PPS. National news outlets have reported on a slate of school bus driver and truck driver shortages in recent years.

"Finding enough qualified candidates to drive school buses seems to be an ongoing problem both regionally and nationally," said David Douglas spokesman Dan McCue.

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