MEA member bus drivers in Ishpeming Public Schools had big reason to celebrate this week after learning they prevailed in their six-month fight against plans to privatize transportation services in the district.
“My shoulders probably went down two inches, I felt so relieved,” said Betty Mongiat, one of the affected drivers and president of the Ishpeming ESP unit.
The drivers and their supporters had attended several school board meetings since the district’s new superintendent first floated the privatization idea last year. They testified on three occasions, ran a petition drive that netted 20 pages of voter signatures, and organized postcard mailings from community members.
In testimony before the board, the MEA members stressed a number of points in arguing against privatizing transportation, including the importance of bus drivers in setting a positive tone for students to begin and end each day, the potential for high driver turnover or shortages, and the drain of local dollars to downstate and outstate companies.
In addition, the drivers emphasized that privatizing custodial and food services in recent years has created new issues, including employee turnover, shorthanded staffing, inadequate lunch supplies, and less clean buildings, Mongiat said.
For example, a high school teacher recently stepped in to work the short-staffed food service line because students were so backed up in getting food they weren’t going to have time to eat, Mongiat said. Other teachers routinely clean their own classrooms now, she added.
The drivers were supported in their fight by parents and community members, along with a large number of organizations – the local United Steelworkers Union, Michigan Nurses Association, Iron Workers Union, Upper Peninsula Regional Labor Federation, Marquette Democratic party, student Democrats from Northern Michigan University, MEA members from neighboring districts, and more.
“We’re definitely going to put something in the paper telling everybody it’s a done deal now and we appreciate all their support,” Mongiat said.
Two transportation companies, one from lower Michigan and one from Wisconsin, made presentations to district officials in recent months. However, Mongiat said drivers were told this week that one company’s bid came in higher than the district’s current costs and the other company declined to bid because of driver shortages in other areas where they operate.
Privatized drivers make less money and often work less predictable routes and shifts, and for that reason Ishpeming’s current drivers said they would not work for a private company if one took over the district’s services.
Now Mongiat says her members are happy to have some certainty back in their lives.
“I think our jobs are safe for some time to come,” she said.