A potential strike by bus drivers with Teamsters Union Local 633 has many school officials planning ahead just in case buses don't show up to bring students to school at some point in the coming days. (Bea Lewis/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
By BEA LEWIS, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
CONCORD — Two school districts have launched legal action to halt the Teamsters Local No. 633 union from engaging in a labor strike of school bus drivers, a move that could benefit Lakes Region students.
On Thursday, the Timberlane Regional School District and the Hampstead School District filed a petition for a temporary restraining order, and for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, prohibiting First Student Inc. from breaching its contract for student transportation services.
Timberlane is a cooperative district that serves the towns of Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow and Sandown. It operates seven schools that serve some 3,500 students. Hampstead has two schools that serve more than 900 students in grades pre-K through eighth grade. Students in grades 9 to 12 attend Pinkerton Academy in Derry.
The petition, initially filed in Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood, was removed to U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire on Thursday. Attorney James O'Shaughnessy of Manchester, acting on behalf of the plaintiff districts, wrote that the labor dispute between First Student and its New Hampshire employees arose over retirement plan funding.
The dispute came to a head in September when the New England Savings and Investment Plan filed a lawsuit against First Student claiming the company had failed to pay contributions as required under the various collective bargaining agreements.
In the meantime, several collective bargaining agreements between the union and the busing company have expired, and the retirement dispute coupled with another suit claiming pay wage violations have hindered efforts to reach terms on a successor contract.
Timberland Superintendent Dr. Earl Metzler, received a warning letter from the union secretary/treasurer dated Nov. 7, advising of a potential "work stoppage" or strike by Teamsters as a result of the dispute.
The petition says Metzler worked to develop a contingency plan and sought the assistance of other school districts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. All either contract with First Student or lack enough buses and drivers to help Timberlane or Hampstead.
"A strike and work stoppage will be a crisis not only for the districts for which I am responsible, but for all of the school
districts in the state that are served by First Student. The Department of Education, the state Attorney General's Office and the Governor's Office convened a Homeland Security conference call on Nov. 15 to address the impact such a strike would have on school districts throughout the state," said Dr. Metzler, who heads SAU 55.
During the call, the Commissioner of Education announced that if pupil attendance drops below 85 percent, those days will not be counted toward the 180 days of school pupils are mandated to attend yearly.
Neither the union nor First Student have made any assurances to the districts that a strike won't occur, that First Students locations won't be picketed, that those picket lines won't be crossed, or that either party will meet its contractual obligations to bus students to school and extracurricular activities.
In support of the requested injunction, Shaughnessy argued that the state Constitution mandates the districts to provide transportation to eligible students, and that with few exceptions school attendance is compulsory for 180 days a year.
The districts cannot replace buses and driver on an emergency basis, as each is heavily regulated and the pool of eligible vehicles and operators is limited.
Given its market share, First Student, Shaughnessy said, controls the vast majority of buses and drivers in the region.
An injunction is needed to ensure adequate transportation services so that the district can fulfill its constitutional obligation to students and a strike would cause the districts, its students and the public "irreparable harm."
If a strike occurs, Metzler said, the districts will be forced to either completely close the schools, rely on parents to transport their kids, or students will have to walk to make it to class.
Multiple cars arriving en masse to drop off and pick up students will cause safety problems and traffic flow may increase to the point where police will have to be called in to control it, he fears.
Unless the court takes immediate action to prevent the disruption of vital and essential government functions, hundreds of students may be without the ability to travel to and from school or may be stranded on roadsides or at school, Shaughnessy said.
While the bus drivers are private employees of First Students, the districts argue that their work is integral to the carrying out of a vital government function, and as such the bus drivers' positions are similar to that of all other public employees.
Copies of the petition have been sent to David Fairweather, area general manager for First Student Inc.; the company's general counsel, attorney Michael Petrucci; and to Jeff Padellaro, business agent for Teamsters Local 633.