Negotiations to avoid a strike by school bus drivers in Beaufort County will stretch into the weekend as other districts in South Carolina prepare for one.
Representatives from Durham School Services -- the company that provides bus services for the Beaufort County School District -- and the Teamsters union met Friday in Charleston to negotiate contracts for Beaufort County drivers.
Unionized drivers in both Charleston County and Dorchester 2 districts have voted to go on strike if they cannot reach a deal on drivers' pay and benefits. Beaufort County drivers have not yet voted to authorize a strike, Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said Friday.
About half of Beaufort County's 200 bus drivers are Teamsters, Foster added.
"Durham and Teamsters representatives from all three affected South Carolina school districts are conducting intensive contract negotiations, and those talks are expected to continue over the weekend," he said. "We think that's an encouraging sign. We hope that means they're making progress in reaching an agreement."
The school district is not part of those talks. Should negotiations fail and drivers strike, Durham has assured the district it has contingency plans to get students to and from school, Foster said.
The S.C. Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously agreed to help the three school districts that contract with Durham School Services deal with a strike. Durham will be allowed to bring in out-of-state drivers who don't have state-required certifications.
Kathleen Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton, is confident Durham can continue orderly bus service even if its drivers strike.
"I think we'll be fine," Corley said Friday. "There will always be glitches, but in our case, generally speaking, students live close by."
That means if Durham is short a driver or two, a bus can come back to the school to pick up more students after making a first run.
Denise Smith, principal of Robert Smalls Intermediate and Middle School in northern Beaufort County, agreed.
"Every communication we have received from the district is (that) Durham has assured us they have other drivers they can bring in, should a strike occur," Smith said. "I haven't gotten any other message other than that. ... I've not had any parent ask if there's a potential for having a strike."
Durham has been negotiating with the Lowcountry's unionized drivers since last summer. Neither side will discuss drivers' demands or the company's position.
The average Charleston bus driver is paid $14.65 per hour for 4-1/2 hours of work each day, and the union appears to have requested a 44-percent pay and benefit increase for the first year of a three-year deal, according to The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston. Drivers' pay would increase 20 percent in the two remaining years, according to the newspaper.
Attempts Friday to reach a Durham spokesperson and a Teamsters representative were unsuccessful.
Foster said the district will post updates on its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and parents will be notified by phone and email if necessary, should a strike occur.
Diette Courrègè Casey, staff writer for The (Charleston) Post & Courier, contributed to this report.