PEQUOT LAKES — Pequot Lakes school bus drivers and their supporters recently began circulating information to parents and community members alleging that a school board member said a “monkey could drive your kids to school” during a particularly contentious negotiations session. But that school board member, school board personnel chair Mark Liedl, denies he ever said that.
The district has been in contract negotiations with its 17 school bus drivers for more than 1-1/2 years. Drivers formed a union, Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes Transportation Staff, about a year ago after becoming frustrated with negotiations and after the district informed them it wanted to reduce their pay. Board members say bus drivers make too much money compared to other employees in the district.
The bus drivers’ contract expired with the 2009-10 school year. They are currently in mediation with the district to settle a three-year contract and will have their third mediation session on Dec. 14.
Lara Maxfield, a Pequot Lakes bus driver and EMPLTS union president, said in the past, a few bus drivers would meet with the superintendent and hammer out a deal based on past agreements. When bus drivers went in more than 1-1/2 years ago to do the same, she said it was made clear by Superintendent Rick Linnell that drivers would have to take a pay cut. A bus driver then went back to the group of drivers and asked if they wanted to unionize, which they decided to do about a year ago. They began negotiating as a union group as of last May.
Maxfield said bus drivers offered the district a three-year hard pay freeze during negotiations but school board members initially proposed a 30 percent paycut, including the loss of their vacation, sick pay and seniority status.
Of the original 17 bus drivers on staff 1-1/2 years ago, six drivers remain employed in the district, said Maxfield. While a few have had medical issues and one driver passed away since that time, many longtime drivers have left because of the stress surrounding negotiations and the uncertainty of their wages, said Maxfield.
Maxfield and Jan Lichy, Education Minnesota field staff, both said that during a negotiations session last summer, Liedl made a comment that a monkey could drive a school bus.
“He made reference to the fact, ‘Are you kidding? We could hire monkeys to do what you guys do,’” Maxfield recalled. Maxfield said Liedl also cursed at them and threw his pen and pen cap at union members.
Lichy wouldn’t comment on those specifics, but said “We’ve witnessed some very unprofessional behavior before and during the sessions,” she said. “The gist of the comment (allegedly made by Liedl) was that any monkey could drive the bus. The mood of it was a big feeling of insult to our drivers because they take pride in getting our kids to school safely and on time as much as possible. It’s really unfortunate because we’ve lost a lot of drivers over this whole incident. We had several of them who said to us, ‘I can’t take this anymore, I’m leaving.”
Liedl adamantly denies he ever said anything about a monkey during negotiations. Liedl did confirm that he became angry and swore during a session last summer and did throw something down on the table but it was the cap of his eye drop bottle, not a pen or pen cap. Liedl said it was after a bus driver made some inappropriate comments and accused the board about not caring about children or their safety.
“A bus driver during one of our negotiations sessions said to us that we don’t know what we’re doing, what we’re talking about and we don’t care about kids and I took offense to that and I said I wasn’t going to listen to that kind of crap,” Liedl recalled. “The issue is negotiations and has always been whether the school district should continue to pay these part-time employees a rate of $23 an hour, and with benefits with rates that exceed $27 an hour. It far exceeds market rates in our community and is not equitable with the pay rates of other employees in our district.”
Liedl said the district’s janitors, cooks and paraprofessionals are paid between $11.24 and $16.59 per hour and a starting teacher earns $24.34 per hour.
“The school board has made it clear from the beginning of negotiations that a more reasonable pay rate must be established to compensate our drivers,” Liedl said. “As a former bus driver — I drove for two years in Rice Lake, Wis., — I know what an important job it is and how challenging it can be.”
Board member and personnel committee member Valarie Wallin, said in an email to the Dispatch that she has participated in all of the negotiation sessions and never heard a statement like that made by Liedl. She said she didn’t want to get into a ‘he said, she said’ fighting match but said negotiators for the union have acted inappropriately but would not elaborate on their unprofessional behavior.
“Without a doubt, many of the transportation union’s negotiators have acted inappropriately. But I would prefer to not embarrass them by disclosing the unprofessional behavior of their representatives,” Wallin said. “And really, such comments do not encourage people to come to the negotiating table ready to work through the issues to a positive solution for all involved.”
Maxfield said the drivers were willing at one point to give up their vacation as long as they didn’t receive a cut in pay. She said some districts contract out their bus services, like the Brainerd School District does by using Reichert Bus Service, and those drivers tend to make less money than Pequot drivers. She said Pequot bus drivers are paid a salary but also are responsible for their own buses, to fuel, wash and maintain them, while many contract bus drivers are not.
Maxfield said drivers are paid on a salary basis so it’s deceptive to compare what they do on an hourly basis.
Lichy said Pequot Lakes drivers get paid $12,519 to $16,164 per year as their gross wages, depending on their years of service and length of routes. She said neighboring Pine River-Backus school bus drivers receive a base pay of $16,224 a year with 1.25 days a month in sick leave, although they don’t get vacation. Pequot Lakes bus drivers can earn up to nine days of vacation, depending on their years of service. Teachers and other staff don’t earn vacation time.
Lichy said the union paid for stuffed monkeys and door knob hanger fliers for bus drivers to put on their buses to provide information to students if they ask for a flier. The monkeys and fliers also can be found at some businesses in Pequot Lakes.
The flier reads: “A Pequot Lakes School Board member says monkeys could drive your kids to school. We don’t think so. We make sure children get to and from school every day, safe, warm and on time. All we’re asking for is a fair contract from the school district. We’re not being greedy; we have offered to take a pay freeze for three years. We just want a fair deal — not a bunch of bananas.
Contact the school board members on the back of this card and tell them you support making sure our students have a safe ride to school every day. Thanks, Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes Transportation Staff.”
The back of the flier lists each board member, their phone number and email address.
“It’s sad the average parent has no clue what’s going on,” said Lichy. “They don’t have any background of what’s gong on. (The monkey comment) clearly got under their (the drivers’) skin and rankled them. We thought we ought to do a campaign, providing them with monkeys. We, being Education Minnesota, purchased the monkeys and hang tags, not to impact their routes or force any child to take anything. If a child wanted to ask about it, the child him or herself could take a hang tag.”
Lichy said the drivers started having the monkeys and accompanying literature on their buses just before Thanksgiving. She said they initially had permission to have the monkeys on their buses but later Transportation Coordinator Randy Maxfield, who is Lara Maxfield’s husband, was told by administration to remove them. One of the monkeys was confiscated by the transportation coordinator who gave it to the superintendent, said Lichy.
Linnell could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
“The superintendent does have a monkey in his office. I asked him, ‘Are you going to free my monkey?’” Lichy said with a laugh. “The monkey in itself is a good unity building piece, for drivers to smile and feel like somebody is supporting them, to have them as a visible symbol that we are here to help them get a settlement when they are feeling down.”
Pequot Lakes barber Jack Schmidt and his wife, Glenda, have a monkey and literature in their shop. Schmidt said he contacted all board members and heard from all but one about the issue.
“It’s a ‘he said, she said’ type deal,’ I’m staying out of this one,” said Schmidt. “I hope they can work it out. It’s still a small community.”
Board chair Kim Bolz Andolshek wouldn’t comment on negotiations or the alleged monkey comment, saying, “Right now it’s a ‘he said, she said’ and I’m not going to get into that in the paper.”
Bolz Andolshek said the district previously had a four-page contract agreement with its drivers, which is now proposed to be 34 pages by the union.
“In regards to a flier that was paid for by the EMPL, it is very unfortunate that there was no information on that flier that spoke to the facts of this process, which are: The Pequot Lakes School Board has always and will always value the safety of our children, students and drivers. We had a contract with a rate of pay that is significantly higher than most school districts and private companies. The school board took many months to research rates of pay. We continue to look at every part of our budget, especially in these tough, economic times. Negotiations is difficult for all sides involved.”
“We’re willing, in light of the economy, to take a three-year hard freeze,” Maxfield said. “We understand what’s going on with the mood of the country. You’ve got to understand that these bus drivers are your down-to-earth, realistic kind of people. The drivers were even willing, if it was a matter of giving up something in order to retain their pay, they were willing to give up vacation as long as they didn’t have to take a cut in pay.”
Maxfield said she doesn’t believe the situation would have been any different for bus drivers had they not joined a union.
According to a presentation made by the school administration at last week’s school board meeting, the new language in the union proposal has several monetary implications. For example, it asks for drivers to be paid a meal allotment of $6 for breakfast, $8 for lunch and $12 for dinner on activity trips, as well as one to two hours of extra pay if these trips exceed six or nine hours. The contract proposal also asks for bus monitors and that drivers who are called in or scheduled to drive or learn a route would be paid a two-hour minimum.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at Jodie.email@example.com or 855-5858.