Streams

Ongoing School Bus Strike Frustrates Special Education Families

Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 10:24 PM

A day after the city said it would pay car companies directly to transport eligible children with special needs to school, parents and teachers say the system, like so much else related to school bus strike, has presented challenges.

"They have to go up to the school to get this voucher form that they have to fill out but now when they call the cab companies in their various neighborhoods the cab companies don't know anything about it," said Joseph Williams, president of the Citywide District 75 Council and the father of a son with autism.

The Department of Education announced Wednesday an arrangement with the Taxi and Limousine Commission that allows some families of children with disabilities to avoid having to pay first for car service and then wait for reimbursement. The D.O.E. said it would pay the car services, to ease the hardship for families during the school bus strike

The problem, many families say, is that the car services don't know about the new payment system.

D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the T.L.C. lined up the participating livery car companies, which is why families are supposed to fill out a form at school, or at their local committee on special education, to obtain a taxi voucher. They're then given the name of approved vendors.

But Williams said he heard complaints from two different parents Thursday that word had not spread to the car companies. So he called a couple himself to see what was happening.

"I spoke to the dispatcher, 'Do you know anything about it?' I spoke to his boss and he said he hadn't heard anything about it. And this was two car companies in Brooklyn," he said, adding that he alerted the superintendent of District 75, which serves thousands of severely disabled students who normally depend on the yellow buses.

Beth Brady, a special education teacher at a District 75 middle school in Washington Heights, P138M, said she has a class of 12 students, most of whom use wheelchairs. But she said only one of them has been making it to school since the strike began because he's ambulatory and lives closer to the school than the others.

"I was making a lot of phone calls today to share that information with them" she said, of the free taxi vouchers for lower income families. "They were asking which companies take the vouchers and we don't have a list of that. So we're still working on what cabs and limos would even take the vouchers. That's a missing piece."

Brady also said many parents can't afford to take time away from work to accompany their children to and from school by either mass transit or a taxi. Her students come from both Manhattan and the Bronx.

Free Yellow Cabs for Children in Wheelchairs

Meanwhile, an umbrella group for some of the small yellow cab companies is offering free wheelchair accessible taxis to disabled children during the strike.

Mark Longo, information director for Taxi Club Management, said: "I'm probably getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 phone calls every hour" from families looking for transportation help.

Longo said Taxi Club Management has about 130 of the city's 233 wheelchair accessible yellow cabs among its fleets, and that C.E.O. Gene Friedman felt strongly about wanting to help the city's students.

Longo said families should contact him via email to make arrangements in advance at mark@taxiclubmanagement.com or call the city's Accessible Dispatch Service, (646) 599-9999.

However, he said, Taxi Club Management doesn't have enough cars to meet the demand and services can't be provided outside the five boroughs. He said he is working to line up alternatives.

Transportation is especially complicated for children with the most serious disabilities because they often travel far from home to get appropriate services.

Michelle Noris's nine year-old son, Abraham, attends the Henry Viscardi School on Long Island because he has cerebral palsy and a movement disorder called chorea. He has epileptic seizures and uses a wheelchair to get around, and a feeding tube for nourishment. The fourth grader has been taking a small wheelchair-accessible bus to school since first grade, with three other children and a matron.

Now, Noris said, she and her husband are splitting transportation duties each morning, taking Abraham to Long Island in their minivan and getting their other child to his neighborhood elementary school. She said they're reimbursed 55 cents for every mile they travel with Abraham in their car which means return trips aren't covered.

"It's a 19.1 mile trip each way," she explained. "We do it twice a day. So that works out to about $21 a day in reimbursement which just about covers the gasoline."

These trips consume four hours each day, and since she's paid by the hour as a professional engineer that means she's making less money.

"They've offered that they would pay for car service but again, the car service they only pay while he's in the car and of course we have to go with him, no one lets a nine-year-old child into a car service," she said. "So that would be even more difficult financially because then I would be in Albertson, Long Island, and how would I get home?"

Noris and other families worry about the children with special needs who aren't making it to school because of these complications. In addition to lost school time, many are also missing out on related services such as speech and occupational therapy.

Waiting on the Labor Board

The city is trying to get more school buses on the road by encouraging companies that employ drivers who aren't striking to take a CPR course and four-hour training program. This way, they can cover for striking escorts.

Some of those bus companies employ escorts in the striking union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Other bus companies are picking up more students than normal. And some are training replacement workers.

Meanwhile, the head of the National Labor Relations Board's regional office, James Paulsen, said he has finished his investigation of the bus companies' complaints against Local 1181 and their request for an injunction to stop the strike. But Paulsen said he could not make his recommendations public. They were sent to the NLRB's Division of Advice in Washington, D.C., where lawyers will consider the matter.

A decision is likely next week, he said.

If the NLRB sides with the bus companies, it will go to federal district court in Brooklyn to seek an injunction.

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