KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — In a unanimous vote, Kalamazoo Public Schools board approved a new contract with unionized school bus drivers Thursday night.

If the union ratifies the proposal, it could help the district draw more teachers and keep routes consistent.

Last school year, KPS parents routinely got automated calls informing them of bus route cancellations. The district says it had to put those calls out on 91 school days from mid-January to June.

The support staff union, Kalamazoo Support Professionals, says a shortage of at least 15 bus drivers created a burden that fell on students and their families.

“They’re going to have to scramble and that is incredibly stressful,” KSP President Joanna Miller said. “Then the worst possibility of them not being able to get to school at all means that they fall behind in their education and we don’t want that to happen.”

In the proposal to board members, Superintendent Darrin Slade acknowledged the shortage often resulted in “unavoidable” route cancellations, tighter scheduling and putting other transportation employees, like mechanics and office workers, behind the wheel.

He added that a market study comparing KPS bus driver salaries to those of neighboring districts “clearly indicated that pay rates needed to be increased.”

“Otherwise, a continuation of significant bus route cancellations was inevitable,” he said.

The pay rates are the focus of Thursday night’s proposal. Currently, starting pay for unionized KPS bus drivers is $14.60 per hour with an hourly maximum of $18.76. After passing the new proposal, starting pay will jump to $19 per hour, with a $23 hourly maximum. The district says its finances can support that.

“I know exactly, intimately, how much this is going to impact my family’s budget and how much we’re going to be able to get done for ourselves with just this increase,” Miller said. “I know that this is going to provide opportunities for staff to do better for themselves.”

While encouraged by the new direction from district administration, Miller hopes drivers will also get universal family coverage in future talks and that other support staff will get their fair share.

“We’re moving into a deeper realization that we’ve seen what it looks like without enough parapros, office staff and campus safety and bus drivers,” she said. “We’re going to mitigate that harm. We’re going to take care of it. It’s very encouraging.”