Bozeman High School lets out

Students line up outside of a bus at Bozeman High School earlier this month. 

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Bus drivers are protesting the Bozeman School District’s decision not to pay their bus company while schools are closed for the coronavirus emergency, complaining Bozeman is the only district in Montana not paying drivers.

School board trustees voted unanimously two weeks ago to cancel bus routes this week, which means the district won’t pay First Student, the bus company contracted to drive Bozeman’s school buses.

This Friday at noon, the board will hold another special meeting and vote on extending the cancellation of bus routes two more weeks, in line with the governor’s decision to close Montana public schools through April 10 to help fight the epidemic.

Bozeman drivers are “pretty upset,” Mark Varcoe of Butte, president and business agent for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 381, said Wednesday.

Superintendent Bob Connors said administrators are again recommending canceling bus routes for two weeks, based on the argument that the bus company shouldn’t be paid “for services not rendered.”

Local taxpayers pay 70% of the cost of school busing, while the state and county cover 15% each. Canceling the bus routes saves taxpayers more than $12,000 a day, estimated Mike Waterman, school business services director.

Varcoe argued that school districts in Billings, Helena, Butte, Missoula and smaller districts are continuing to pay their bus companies and drivers.

The union represents some 46 Bozeman drivers and school bus monitors.

“Some of them are going to have to find other jobs,” Varcoe said. “I think they will end up losing some drivers.”

Other school districts are putting bus drivers to work during the emergency closure by having them deliver school lunches and class assignments to kids on their routes, he said.

One Bozeman driver, who asked that his name not be printed for fear of reprisal, said he’s retired like about half the drivers, who aren’t as dependent on their school bus paychecks.

But younger drivers losing four weeks of income will be in “dire straights” and many will have to look for other jobs, he said, predicting First Student, already short of drivers, could lose 10 or 15 drivers.

“How many people can afford to lose a month’s pay?” he asked.

Drivers, though part-time workers, do qualify for unemployment insurance, but historically it has paid less than a full paycheck, Varcoe said.

Connors argued the drivers aren’t school employees but First Student employees. It’s First Student that makes the decision whether or not to pay them, he added.

School officials are in negotiations with First Student, he said. A memo on the school board agenda says that the latest route cancellations may reduce the amount bus service needed this year more than 15%, which would require the district and company to negotiate rate changes.

“Good faith negotiations are already underway in accordance with that contract requirement,” it says. “Any agreement reached in those negotiations would be brought to the Board for approval.”

Friday’s school board meeting will be held online through the Zoom video conference service, rather than in person, but is still open to the public. The public can attend the meeting at the Willson School boardroom or join in electronically (meeting ID is 901 515 166; password is 862552). Zoom has a chat function that lets people submit comments electronically, Connors said.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.