Talks appear to have broken down between the Teamsters union and the company that provides bus service for the Beaufort County School District.
The union, however, assured district officials Tuesday it doesn't want to strike.
A Teamsters representative accused Durham School Services of walking out of meetings with the union Tuesday morning, The (Charleston) Post and Courier reported.
However, Durham, which is negotiating a contract with Teamsters members in the Beaufort, Charleston and Dorchester 2 school districts, denied the claim. In a statement, the company says it increased its offer to raise the pay of drivers and monitors but is unable to meet the union's "unreasonable demands."
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The company also accused the union of being unwilling to enter into mediation for a new contract.
"We stand ready to continue discussions, whether through continued negotiations or mediation, should they decide to adjust their demands," Durham spokeswoman Carina Noble said in the statement.
Durham and Teamsters Local 509, based in Columbia, have been negotiating since July over pay and benefits for union drivers and bus monitors, including about 100 who work for the Beaufort County School District. They have been working without a contract since then.
The company last week said it offered to increase new drivers' starting pay by 50 cents to $12 an hour, and average pay by 45 cents to $15.01 per hour. That would increase drivers' pay about 3 to 4 percent. The union had requested a 10-percent raise, according to John Elliott, chairman emeritus of Durham School Services.
Attempts on Tuesday to reach Noble and L.D. Fletcher, president of Local 509, were unsuccessful.
Beaufort County union members voted last week to strike should negotiations fail, joining union drivers in the Charleston County and Dorchester 2 districts.
The Teamsters met Tuesday with Beaufort County district officials, including interim superintendent Jackie Rosswurm, assuring them they had not called a strike and wished to continue negotiations, district spokesman Jim Foster said.
"We are getting dramatically conflicting stories about what happened, and kids and parents are caught in the middle while the two sides launch rhetorical mortar shells," Foster said. "Dr. Rosswurm told the union and Durham (that) both need to get back to the table and reach an agreement.
"Both sides continue to say the last thing they want is a strike, and the best way to show that is for them to keep talking to each other."
Beaufort County union members packed County Council chambers Tuesday during the school board's regular meeting to complain of unsafe buses and plead for district intervention.
"We're not asking for a whole lot," bus driver Sherryl Drake told the board. "We're just trying to live. We are not being treated fairly. ... We get up every day and drive this precious cargo and depend on this job, but want it done safely and fairly. What about the bus drivers and monitors? No one from the district has talked to us to ask us about our concerns. ... What about us?"
Elliott told reporters last week Durham's inspection record speaks for itself. It was not clear, however, who inspects the company's buses.
Elliott said the state inspects the buses. A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, though, says its transportation office does not inspect or maintain Durham buses.
The state owns 127 of the district's 173 busses, according to Foster. Durham owns 29 and the district owns the rest, Foster said.
Drake said Durham alone is responsible for the maintenance of its buses and has only one mechanic.