The union representing city school bus drivers said early this morning that it would not call a strike, and that it still hopes to avoid one. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Education are still warning parents of the possibility while getting contingency plans into place.
Here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions we’ve been hearing from parents, and wondering about ourselves here at Schoolbook.
What do I do if there’s a strike?
One word: MetroCard. The city is making them available for elementary students and for parents, too, to accompany the youngest pupils. Families of students with special needs, a children who don’t live near mass transit, can apply for travel reimbursements. See Chancellor Walcott’s letter or call 311 for more information.
Why is this coming up now?
Local 1181 of the Almagamated Transit Union has contracts with more than 25 school bus companies (there are also some companies that don’t use unionized drivers). City Hall is in the process of bidding out those contracts which are up for renewal in June. They are for routes that transport more than 22,000 students with special needs.
But the city and the union disagree about whether the companies are still required to hire the same drivers, at the same pay rates. These Employee Protection Provisions were part of previous contracts, after the last school bus strike in 1979 crippled the city for three months. But in 2011 the state’s highest court sided with some bus companies when it found these protections aren’t legal.
Mayor Bloomberg has repeatedly pointed to this ruling as his rationale for no longer including employee protections in the contracts. But the union claims that ruling only applied to the Pre-K contracts. It also claims student safety may be compromised if the city contracts with more non-unionized bus companies. But the city vigorously denies that, and says all drivers and matrons must complete training requirements.
Will competitive bidding save the city money?
The city currently spends over $1 billion annually busing 152,000 students to school. That translates to almost $7000 per pupil, or more than twice as much as Los Angeles spends (the nation’s second largest school district).
Mayor Bloomberg said, “We have an obligation to use our money effectively, it’s the taxpayers’ money,” adding that the city is better off putting more money into classrooms whenever possible.
The city says it saved saved $95 million over five years by bidding out the pre-kindergarten contracts in 2011.
Why does busing cost so much?
That seems to be the question for almost everything in New York City. The mayor says it’s because there hasn’t been competitive bidding in over 30 years. Drivers and the matrons who accompany students with special needs also require special training. New York City buses more students than any other school district, with customized door-to-door service for students with special needs. Some are even bused to private schools outside city limits.
Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive for Schools Support Services, said the bus companies complain that labor accounts for 75-80 percent of their costs. “In New York, a competitive bid opens up the market to incumbent vendors and bus vendors looking to come into New York for many years.”
Why are all students who take buses affected if this only involves the unionized bus companies?
The city says it’s too difficult to figure out which students are on routes traveled by unionized drivers. That’s why it’s giving a general warning to parents of all students who rely on yellow buses. And it can’t ask more non-unionized drivers to pick up the slack in the event of a strike because it can only use drivers who are already properly trained, and are therefore already busing students.
Didn’t the union make the same threat last year?
Yes, after the city bid out the first batch of bus contracts. But they only covered pre-kindergarten, a small fraction of the total. And those contracts never included the employee protections to begin with. The union threatened to strike and then backed off.
Which kids get bused to school?
About a third of the children who are bused to school are pupils with special needs. The rest live too far to walk, but are usually still within their geographic school district or within five miles of school. There are also some students with special needs who attend private schools, but still qualify for city-funded transportation. High school students take mass transit. The vast majority of students in New York City walk to school.
Can the city negotiate with the union?
Technically there’s nothing to negotiate over, according to City Hall, because this is a dispute between bus companies and the drivers. “The city cannot get involved in a labor management negotiation in the private sector,” Bloomberg said Monday. “But we’re happy to provide a venue we’ll provide a place with a whole bunch of pots of coffee and no bathroom maybe that will get them to come to an agreement, I don’t know.”
What are we hearing from families?
Some public school parents rallied with members of the union on Sunday. But others are less sympathetic. Michael Reilly, co-chair of the transportation committee on Staten Island’s Community Education Council 31, said: “Parents say it will be an inconvenience. It will be tough to coordinate with baby sitters.”
There’s already a Facebook page for city parents who are “fed up with transportation troubles,” where people are talking about the strike.
On Schoolbook’s own Facebook page, Melissa Morgenlander wrote, “It’s going to be really tough if it happens. My son (with autism) does not fare well on subways – much worse on a rush-hour subway! – so the metrocards they will issue are a bit useless. It will be a car service after dropping off my daughter – so I’m sure my son will be a little late. And it will get costly!”
On Twitter, here are some comments we’ve seen:
From @WAGPOPS – “Pooling for most – car/subway/walking – lots of pooling resources. Out of zone/district parents & sp needs already planning.”
From @Aroncyzk – “Does ‘freak out’ qualify as a back up plan?”
From @Aaron_Nagler, when asked about his backup plan in the event of a strike – “to curse excessively.”
There is also a list of Frequently Asked Questions on the Department of Education‘s Web site.