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Parents want experienced school bus drivers

Yet mayor fails to negotiate with striking union

Members of Parents to Improve School Transportation and other community and labo Parents to Improve School Transportation

Members of Parents to Improve School Transportation and other community and labor groups rally alongside school bus drivers from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 at a Jan. 14 press conference in advance of their strike.

Tameka Carter and her daughter Brianna, who has special needs, ride the public b Miller Photography

Tameka Carter and her daughter Brianna, who has special needs, ride the public bus to her daughter’s school in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Jan. 25. Carter has four children in four different schools across Brooklyn, making the logistical hassle caused by the strike that much more difficult. To get Brianna to and from school, Carter must take both a subway and a bus, commuting one hour each way in the morning and the afternoon.

Tameka Carter and her daughter Brianna, who has special needs, ride the public b Miller Photography

The city’s protracted yellow school bus strike has left both parents and teachers increasingly frustrated with Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his failure to negotiate with the union that represents the approximately 9,000 striking drivers and matrons.

The strike has stranded more than 150,000 students — 54,000 of whom have special needs — who depend on yellow school buses to get to and from school. Only 2,320 bus routes out of 7,700 are operating, according to the Department of Education.

“They need to sit down and come to some kind of compromise to get the kids back in school,” said Allister Johnson, the chapter leader at PS 811, a District 75 school on the Upper West Side, where the attendance rate has dropped by a third. “The mayor has to stop being obstinate."

The strikers, all members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, walked off the job on Jan. 16 in response to the city’s decision to accept competitive bids for 1,100 bus routes — about a sixth of the total — for children with disabilities without including job security measures in the new contracts.

The Employee Protection Provision, which requires bus companies to hire drivers and other employees based on seniority, has been a standard feature of yellow school bus contracts since 1979. The mayor and the schools chancellor now claim that a 2011 appeals court ruling prohibits them from including the provision in new contracts, but they had previously argued for its preservation in another lawsuit. City officials make no secret of their distaste for the provision on the grounds that it drives up costs.

Inclusion of the provision in the new contracts would guarantee that current drivers keep their jobs no matter which companies win the bids, an outcome that many parents say they favor because they would prefer to have more experienced drivers, many of whom they have known for years, caring for their children.

For parents like Staten Island mom Lisa Mazzu, whose two children have special needs, that long-term peace of mind far outweighs the short-term inconvenience caused by the strike.

“We have the perfect matron and school bus driver,” said Mazzu, who has been forced to work from home since the strike began in order to be able to drive her kids to and from school. “When you get a good bus driver or matron, you’re very fortunate. Experience is so key to special needs students. You can’t throw just anybody on a bus and expect them to understand what it takes to work with kids with special needs."

Mazzu believes that cuts to workers’ hourly pay — a likely result of the mayor’s push to reduce costs — will also come at the expense of student safety. Drivers currently begin at $14 an hour, and matrons at $11; the average annual salary is around $35,000.

“I can’t imagine who we’d get for $7 an hour,” Mazzu said. “Can you imagine what kind of problems we’ll have if he cuts their salaries in half? I don’t know why he’s nickel-and-diming.”

Mazzu said she’d once been a supporter of the mayor, but not anymore. “How do you directly attack the lowest paid people on the totem pole in public education?”

Tameka Carter also has a special needs child who has been stranded without a bus but she too said she supports the strikers.

“I would like Bloomberg to take a bus ride with an unauthorized or unqualified matron or bus driver,” the Brooklyn mother of four said.

Carter’s daughter has missed two full days of school since the strike began, and has arrived late and left early every other day because her mother must also bring two of her siblings to and from their school buses.

It’s that lost instructional time that has educators worried, particularly those in District 75, the citywide district for students with special needs, which has seen a 20 percent drop in attendance — according to the DOE — since the strike began.

Don Albright, the UFT chapter leader at PS 186, a K-8 school in the Bronx, said that attendance at his school dropped to 34 percent on the first day of the strike and has since climbed to 51 percent as parents have made alternate arrangements to get their children to school. But only 6 out of the school’s 40 wheelchair-bound students came to school on Jan. 23, a full week after the strike began.

“It’s really been a hardship for our kids in wheelchairs,” Albright said.

Albright said he worries about students who require daily services like physical or occupational therapy that are offered only in the school setting.

If they don’t receive their therapy, Albright warned, students could suffer muscle atrophy or a reduction in range of motion.

Albright said that while he hopes the strike will end quickly, he understands why the drivers and matrons walked off the job.

“They’re striking to save their jobs, and I support them,” he said. “These people have families, they have kids in school, they have mortgages. The administration should negotiate fairly.”

As employees of private bus companies that contract with the city, the drivers and matrons are not public employees and therefore are not covered under the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits teachers and other public employees from striking.

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