Parents outraged over delayed school buses, changed routes and poor communication complained loud enough at least to get a City Council hearing Wednesday, if not substantive changes to the way the school system manages its bus transportation.
According to city law, bus commutes for special education students should not exceed 90 minutes if the school is in the same borough, and 115 minutes if the school is out of borough. Many parents said the law was frequently violated, leaving children with special needs and disabilities particularly vulnerable when things go wrong.
Sara Catalinotto lives in Chelsea but her 10-year-old son attends P.S. 206 Jose Celso Barbosa in East Harlem. She says his commute home is over two hours long.
Crystal Alfano, a subsitute teacher who lives in Dyker Heights, said that her daughter is picked up at 7:30 a.m., even though her preschool starts at 9 a.m. and is only five miles away. Yet Ms. Alfano says she's one of the more fortunate ones. "There are some children who haven't been placed on routes yet."
City Council member Robert Jackson of Upper Manhattan, convened a hearing on the issue. He said he wants to know if the bus companies are doing their best to serve the needs of students and their families.
"We hope that the bus companies, parents and everyone else testify," he said. "The D.O.E.'s going to come and answer some tough questions."
D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said there were hiccups with bus service every year.
“We provide busing for 160,000 students each day and route adjustments are standard – especially at the start of the school year. Our priority is making sure our eligible students receive the bus services they need,” she said.
Longer travel times can be more than just a source of annoyance for parents. Catalinotto's son suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder and she said that he often experiences nausea and headaches on the commute. "We can't leave him in school because there's no one to supervise him."
Alfano said that her daughter, who is also autistic, gets upset if she's on the bus for too long. "She will bang the back of her head on the car seat."
Both parents have started groups to address some of the challenges parents face and to campaign for shorter and more sensible bus routes. Catalinotto founded Parents to Improve School Transportation, a website, and Alfano created a Facebook page called New York City Parents Fed up with Transportation Troubles.
They both said the delays are a result of a reduction in bus routes. "They subtracted 320 routes this year," Catalinotto said. "They start out at a deficit purposely to save money."
At P.S. 112 Jose Celso Barbosa, an early childhood school that shares the building with P.S. 206, a cluster of children waited for their matrons to shepherd them into buses. A veteran bus driver speaking on condition of anonymity was waiting in a minivan for her pickups. She said that overcrowding and convoluted routing had made it impossible to get students home on time, a problem that became more serious when dealing with special education students who have limited travel time.
"When you pick your run, it doesn't make sense," she said. "They need more buses on the roads."
Daniel Gatto is the president of Teamsters Local 854, a union which has over 600 drivers and matrons employed by the Department of Education to provide school transport. Gatto said that special education bus routes were handed down directly by the education department and his drivers, many of whom were highly experienced, had no say. The long travel times, he said, were a "bad situation" that were the result of cost-cutting by the city.
"This is really not where they should be saving," he said. "We pay people more to pick up the trash than to pick up the children. Philosophically, there's something wrong with that."
Gatto also commented on last month's fracas with Professional Charter Services, formerly the city's largest prekindergarten bus contractor that served nearly a third of the city's 11,800 special needs pre-kindergartners. The city terminated Professional Charter's $29 million contract last month, citing numerous no-shows and delays. But Gatto believes that the company was set up for failure.
"What they were asked to do was beyond anyone's control," he said. "Too many children, not enough buses, too long of a route and too small a time frame in which they received all that information."
Peter Silverman, an attorney for Professional Charter, said the matter was under administrative review with the Department of Education, and declined to comment further. Silverman also represents the Consolidated Bus Transit company. Here is a list of bus companies for school-aged, not pre-school, students.
Although the city took action in the case of Professional Charter, some elected officials believe it is generally loath to do so. "It seems as though the D.O.E. cannot get it right even though they've been doing this for over 30 years," said Council member Jackson. "Kids left on the bus for hours, kids not being picked up. You expect this from amateurs."
Currently, there is no data to compare bus commute times from one year to the next. There is a page on the D.O.E. website where bus companies can update their daily status.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said that system breakdowns disrupt learning and are a nightmare for parents who have children with disabilities.
"Putting your child on a school bus is an act of faith, Mr. de Blasio said in an e-mail. "But you can't trust
in a system where buses run hours behind or never come at all. The D.O.E. needs to shake out the problems before the first day of school, and help parents answer the basic question: 'where is my school bus?'"