Mark Chase, lead negotiator for RSU 16 bus drivers in 2017, framed a sticky note on which Superintendent Tina Meserve wrote terms of a contract offer she made May 4, 2017.

POLAND — Regional School Unit 16 bus drivers and the school board are headed toward fact-finding to secure a new contract, after nearly two years of negotiations.

The nearly two dozen drivers covering Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland joined Teamsters Local 340 after several attempts to secure a contract with the district failed.

The two sides have gone through mediation without reaching an agreement. So far, it has cost the district more than $17,000 in legal fees, according to lead negotiator Mark Chase, an RSU 16 bus driver with over 40 years of experience.

The next step is fact-finding, a process under state law that gives both sides the opportunity to call upon the Maine Labor Relations Board to arrange for fact-finding services and recommendations to be provided by the Maine Board of Arbitration and Conciliation.

Chase, along with fellow drivers Ted Crowell and Nick Strout said they would prefer meeting with the school board face to face because fact-finding could cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

“We really want to make this a win-win situation,” Crowell said.

The drivers first negotiated directly with Superintendent Tina Meserve  in the spring of 2017. Her offer was a 1.5 percent pay raise, the loss of 10 vacation days and a 2.5 percent increase in their health insurance payments, Chase said.

The drivers rejected it, he said.

On May 4, 2017, Chase said, “We were met with the exact same statements as the first meeting and advised by the superintendent that if transportation costs could not be kept in check that a private contracting service would have to be considered.”

The offer was written on a sticky note, which Chase said he framed.

Four days later, the drivers asked to address the board, Chase said, but board Chairperson Mary Martin said it would be a courtesy only because the drivers were not represented by a bargaining unit.

Chase said Martin did say the board wasn’t interested contracting transportation services, despite what Meserve had said earlier.

On May 9, 2017, Chase said, he and the entire transportation staff were asked to attend a meeting with Meserve and then-RSU 16 Operations Director John Hawley just 15 minutes before drivers would have to begin afternoon bus runs. He said they were verbally offered a 3 percent wage increase, the loss of five vacation days and a 2 percent hike in insurance payments.

It was rejected, he said, because it would mean drivers would lose $230 annually.

A plan by drivers to meet informally with the public on May 23, 2017, just before a school board meeting, was thwarted when Meserve said it would be illegal and if they did the entire transportation staff would be reprimanded.

The final offer by Meserve came two days later on May 25, 2017: a 3 percent increase in wages, no loss of vacation days and a 2 percent hike in health insurance payments.

The drivers joined the Teamsters Local 340 after that offer and are represented in negotiations by Ed Marzano of South Portland.

RSU 16 Superintendent Ken Healey, who took the job in 2018, said in an email Thursday that neither the school board nor the teamsters agreed to bargain in public.

“We have a legally required process for bargaining and we will continue to follow that process,” he wrote. “In time, the fact-finding report will become public (if we don’t reach a settlement by then) and the details will be available for all to review. However, it appears that before that happens the teamsters are trying to bring publicity to these negotiations in an effort to pressure the school board’s negotiations team into making concessions.”

The said the teamsters’ publicity is filled with misinformation.

“For example, I have never been asked to consider the privatization of our student transportation and I am not aware that is something the School Board has considered doing since I’ve been the superintendent. It is certainly not something that we have been discussing with the Teamsters,” Healey wrote.

Also, he said, “the cost of fact-finding is nowhere near $30,000-$50,000. The cost of the state-appointed fact-finding panel will be split between the parties, and each side may end up paying about $6,000.”

Healey said, “I won’t get into all of the details of these negotiations because I have faith in the legal process that will eventually help us settle this contract, but the taxpayers should know that the School Board’s latest proposal would provide a minimum raise of 4% for our highest paid bus drivers” or 70 cents per hour.

“Notably, the proposal would pay all bus drivers the same wage, regardless of seniority,” Healey wrote. “Paying all drivers the same wages, even the newest drivers, should help the RSU attract new drivers in the midst of this statewide shortage, while at the same time paying fair raises to the drivers who have been serving us the longest.”

The superintendent said the teamsters are now demanding a 24 percent pay increase, or more than $4 per hour.

“This would be an extraordinary cost increase to the RSU’s budget,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that the teamsters’ have resorted to these tactics, but I can assure you that the School Board’s team will continue to negotiate in good faith under the law and I am hopeful that the legally required process will eventually help us settle our differences. If not, I will certainly discuss the details of these negotiations after the fact-finding report becomes public.”