School bus drivers are on strike in Marlborough Monday, according to a statement from the Marlborough Public Schools.
In Framingham a school bus driver strike was headed off after the union representing the drivers reached a deal Sunday evening to avert a strike Monday that would have affected thousands of public school students.
Buses will also roll in Westborough, where drivers have opted not to go on strike “at this time,” an official with the drivers’ union, Teamsters Local 170, said late Sunday night.
Students in nearby Marlborough, however, are having to find another way to school, as bus drivers serving that community will go on strike beginning Monday morning, the union said.
Marlborough Superintendent Mary Murphy said about 3,800 students rely on bus transportation.
“This strike will create a barrier for some of our students, even with all of our contingency plans,” she said in an e-mail to the Globe on Sunday. “Without a bus, they will be unable to attend school. Our students need to be in class.
“Our educators have been focused on providing additional instructional supports for students that were impacted by Covid related absences and we are all frustrated by the thought that some of our students will not have access to their high quality education due to a labor dispute outside of our schools,” Murphy said. “We are also concerned for our students that rely on their school to provide breakfast and lunch as well as mental health services.”
School officials in Marlborough, Westborough, and Framingham spent last week preparing for the possibility of a strike as the Teamsters worked to negotiate new contracts with North Reading Transportation Bus Inc., a private company that provides bus service to students in the three communities west of Boston.
In Framingham, news of a deal to avert the strike came as School Superintendent Robert Tremblay briefed reporters outside the high school on contingency plans. As he spoke shortly after 6 p.m., Mayor Charlie Sisitsky stepped aside to take a phone call.
A few moments later, as Tremblay was about to begin taking questions, Sisitsky pulled the phone away from his ear and interrupted.
“I just talked to the business manager of the Teamsters. They’re gonna sign the contract. There’s not gonna be a strike,” Sisitsky said, drawing applause and cheers from a group of school and city officials gathered for the news briefing.
The three school districts each contract with NRT, but have not been directly involved in the talks, as the negotiations have been between the bus company and their workers.
Local 170 business agent Jim Marks said the Teamsters were still in bargaining talks with NRT over the Marlborough and Westborough contracts late Sunday night. He confirmed in an e-mail to the Globe that bus drivers in Marlborough are on strike, while the drivers for Westborough are “not on strike at this time” but he did not share details of where the negotiating stands.
In a statement released shortly after 9:15 p.m. Sunday, NRT confirmed the Framingham deal and said negotiations for Marlborough and Westborough were ongoing.
“NRT continues to work closely with the school personnel from Marlborough and Westborough, along with the RMV, DOT, and Department of Education to prepare contingency plans in the event that Teamsters Local 170 goes ahead with the strike in those respective communities,” the statement said.
The deal in Framingham comes as a major relief to school leaders and avoids a strike that would have impacted more than 5,500 students who regularly take the bus to school, Tremblay said. Officials surveyed families and about half said they would be able to coordinate carpooling to get their children to school.
School and city officials were preparing for significant traffic impacts. Tardiness was to be excused, Tremblay said, and the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority was planning to waive fares for students.
“There’s no excuse for students not to come in tomorrow,” Tremblay said, smiling. “The buses are running.”
Details of the reported agreement between the Teamsters and NRT were not immediately available Sunday.
The agreement came a day after Framingham moved to cut ties with the union and bus company.
On Saturday, the city council voted to cancel its four-year contract with NRT and rebid, Sisitsky said. He notified NRT and the Teamsters about the vote and brought the sides back together later that afternoon for more than eight hours of bargaining, but the meeting ended without an agreement.
Sisitsky was asked on Sunday how these labor talks may impact the school district’s future plans to contract with a private company for bus service.
“It’s making us think a lot about that and we plan to spend a lot of time talking about that internally about how we move forward with providing the school bus transportation,” he said.
The district is in the second year of a four-year contract with NRT that calls for the company to provide 77 drivers for 77 routes, but NRT “has not met that number the entire school year,” Framingham said in a statement Saturday.
The drivers have been negotiating for a new contract with NRT over fair wages, healthcare, and retirement benefits, the union has said.
The bus company said in a statement Monday that drivers are currently paid $34 per hour in Marlborough, placing those drivers “at the top of School Bus Driver compensation range across the State of Massachusetts.”
“The Teamsters are seeking an additional 22% wage increase for restricted CDL drivers, 7D drivers, and monitors, even after NRT, in a show of good faith, increased Marlborough CDL wages by 30.8% only four months ago on January 1, 2023,” NRT said in the statement.
School officials in the three communities had been preparing for the strike and issued contingency plans to families for students to get to school.
In Marlborough, students living within a mile-and-a-half radius of their school are expected to walk. The school district has established walking zones, that will be staffed by volunteers, school staff, and local police.
Students who live farther from school must be dropped off by family or friends, the district’s guidance said. The few buses that may be available will focus on areas with the highest concentration of students.
“Students will be notified if they are assigned to these limited routes,” the district’s plan says. “If you don’t receive notification of assignment to a bus route by Sunday, May 7th, please plan to walk or drive your student to school.”
The district said it will bring in bus drivers for students who take a special education mini-bus to school but delays are possible as the drivers may not be regular Marlborough drivers.