PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence's school bus drivers are going back to work.
Representatives from Teamsters Local 251 and First Student, Inc. confirmed Friday a tentative agreement has been reached between the two sides, ending an 11-day strike that forced more than 9,000 students to find alterative transportation to school during the dispute.
Details on the pact have not been released and the union's membership must vote to ratify a new contract before it is finalized.
The deal came only hours before a self-imposed deadline from Mayor Jorge Elorza, who threatened to pull city funds off the table if the two sides could reach an agreement by Friday. It's unclear if the deal does include additional city funds, but Elorza released a statement praising the two parties.
“I greatly appreciate everyone’s collaboration in coming to an agreement that restores transportation for our kids,” Elorza said. “We’ll continue to work to ensure a smooth transition for students affected by the strike. I want to thank all of the parents, neighbors, teachers, police officers, firefighters, administrators, and community partners that supported our kids throughout the past 11 days.”
In a statement, First Student praised Elorza and City Council President David Salvatore for bringing the two sides together.
"We’ve reached a tentative contract agreement today with Teamsters Local 251 that reflects our joint commitment to providing Providence students and families with safe and reliable school bus transportation," the company said. "First Student is appreciative of Mayor Elorza's and City Council President Salvatore's commitment to bringing both sides to a deal, and we are looking forward to welcoming our drivers back on Monday."
The tentative pact also comes as investigators continue to search for the cause of a fire that destroyed several school buses at a First Student lot in Providence Thursday evening.
City officials have not said the fire and the strike are connected, although the fire is considered suspicious.
Lindsay Lague, a spokesperson for the Providence Police Department, said the fire has not been ruled arson but is being investigated as suspicious in nature.
"We are treating it as we would any investigation, whether criminal or not," she stated.
At least six school buses were damaged Thursday night in a lot off Ricom Way. One firefighter suffered minor injuries while fighting the fire.
Investigators returned to the scene Friday, and Lague said she expects them to work through the weekend.
Teamsters Local 251, the union representing Providence's 200 bus drivers, released a statement on Facebook saying the fire won't impede their ongoing contract negotiations with First Student.
The bus drivers walked off the job on Sept. 27 and since then, the city's 9,000 students have had to find alternative methods of transportation to and from school.
Nick Williams, business agent for Teamsters 251, said he expects the agreement in writing by noon Saturday.
"It was a decent compromise, I'll tell you that." Williams said.
The union, which has been without a contract since June, is demanding that drivers start earning pension plans but First Student maintains it is only willing to increase its contribution to members’ 401(k) plans.
The two sides have scheduled another meeting for Friday afternoon, according to Elorza. He and other leaders have started joining the chorus of parents urging the two sides to come to an agreement.
"Unless something is done immediately, then they both run the risk of being tossed out," Elorza said. "We just need to move forward. We need to find a resolution. Our kids need to get to school and enough is enough."
Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for First Student, mirrored that sentiment in a statement Friday:
"This strike needs to end today. We're ready to operate our buses on Monday and restart the level of service the City of Providence deserves and expects. We're ready to welcome back any and all of the drivers who want to get back to work. We will assist with our drivers' safe entrance to our yard and provide access to the vehicles they need to operate their neighborhood routes. Enough is enough - we have made repeated, daily attempts this week to resolve this dispute with the Teamsters which have been rejected or ignored. The students, families, and City cannot keep waiting. We need to move forward on Monday."
Williams said he expects buses to be back on the roads starting Monday.
Sarah Doiron and Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.