Mayor Warns of Potential School Bus Strike

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2:48 p.m. | Updated A union representing city school bus drivers has threatened to go on strike, potentially cutting bus service to 152,000 city students and leaving the city's Department of Education scrambling to come up with contingency plans for families who rely on the service.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called a news conference on Friday to announce the possibility of the strike, a threat the union made on Thursday after the Education Department put out a bid for a new contract with terms that the union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, has been fighting.

"If and when a strike should happen, we are going to do everything possible to help parents who rely on school buses to get their children to school safely," the mayor said.

Though Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott warned of the "strong possibility of an immediate, systemwide strike," in a letter he sent to principals and parents on Friday, the union issued a statement following the press conference saying that while a strike was "likely," it had "no immediate plans" to do so.

A strike would affect yellow-bus service for 152,000 public and private school students in grades kindergarten through 12. Most of those students live in Brooklyn and Queens and about 102,000 of them are in elementary school. About 70,000 special education students, from pre-kindergarteners to high school students, would be affected.

As news of the possible strike spread, parents of special education children expressed alarm.

"Many special education children have door to door service, specific travel accommodations, limited travel time, they have to be transported to and from school in a certain period of time, in certain climate conditions," said Jaye Bea Smalley, who is a co-chairwoman of the City-Wide Council on Special Ed and who has two children who receive special education services -- one nearby at Public School 166 The Richard Rogers School of The Arts and Technology in Manhattan, and another child who is bused to the Gillen Brewer School uptown.

"My child has mandated transportation," she said. "I can’t take her to school everyday, and she receives door to door busing service. There are many parents in that situation."

The labor dispute centers on a contract for busing prekindergarten and students who receive special education and early intervention services. The contract ends in June 2012, and Mr. Walcott said that Wednesday the city told union officials of its plans to issue a new bid for services that individual bus companies could apply for.

According to city officials, the union demanded that they include a job protection clause that would give hiring and seniority preference to school bus drivers who are laid off when a company loses a contract. When the city said it could not include the rule, union officials threatened to strike.

"The union representing school bus drivers is seeking something that we are not legally allowed to offer: Job guarantees for certain current drivers," the mayor said, calling the union's threats "outrageous."

However unusual the rule may sound, it already applies to the city's contract for kindergarten through 12th grade busing. It forces bus companies that win contracts to hire the most senior employees of other bus companies when they are laid off after the companies lose contracts.

For the last three years, city attorneys have been arguing that this provision should be extended to its preschool bus contracts, insisting it was necessary to prevent a strike. But in July, the city changed course, stopped defending the job protections and asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto a bill it had championed to put the rule in place without court approval.

At City Hall on Friday, officials said that if bus drivers were to walk out, they would break the law by striking against a third party. The city's contract is with the bus companies, not the union. City lawyers will file an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board and seek an injunction in federal court to avert the strike, the mayor said.

On Friday, several bus companies said they were not in agreement with their workers' union. Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for four bus companies -- Atlantic Express Transportation Corp., Consolidated Bus Transit, Pioneer Transportation and Varsity Bus -- said the companies are against a strike and would go to court to prevent one.

"It is in everyone’s best interest that cooler heads prevail and our drivers and matrons stay on the job," Ms. Daly wrote in a statement.

The Department of Education has hatched a contingency plan that includes issuing MetroCards to students who take yellow buses from a designated bus stop near their homes to their schools. The city has already spent $1.3 million on 300,000 Metrocards — each card has enough money for two rides. Parents of special-needs children who must be picked up at home or whose children are in kindergarten, first and second grades may request a MetroCard as well to escort them to class.

The city also offered to reimburse parents who choose to drive or use other types of private transportation to take their special-needs children to school.

The schools system will give a two-hour reprieve to children who arrive late to school because of problems with their transportation.

Hadas Goshen contributed reporting.