Editor’s Note: The following report has been updated to incorporate the statement from the drivers’ union.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott accused the union representing school bus drivers of dirty tactics as the two sides continued to spar over a possible citywide school bus strike.
In an interview on WOR Radio Thursday, Walcott challenged the union's argument that children's safety will be at risk if the city switches bus companies, and criticized it for trying to scare parents about a possible change. He said new drivers would get the same training as the current drivers.
"We're not putting our students at risk by putting out a request for bids," he said. "It's being proper in making sure we have the most competitive bids and any money saved will go back directly into schools."
The chancellor also made his case in an op-ed piece Thursday in the Daily News.
The dispute began when the city requested new bids for bus routes transporting students from kindergarten through 12th grade who have special needs. The routes involved represent about one sixth of the total routes covered by yellow bus service. The Amalgamated Transit Union, local 1181, which represents many of the drivers, said it wanted its members’ jobs guaranteed even if the city hires new bus companies. But the city said a Court of Appeals ruling prevents any such job guarantees.
Michael Cordiello, President of ATU Local 1181, issued the following statement:
“The elimination of the EPP [Employee Protection Provisions] in this bid not only impacts the safety of the general population of school children, but also impacts New York City's special education children who are most in need of an experienced, steady, and professional workforce. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott are attempting to take away the jobs of thousands of experienced school bus drivers and matrons who provide years of unmatched training and experience for all of our children - experience that cannot be replaced. We are exploring every option to avert a strike, but are fully prepared to do so if necessary."
At a December 21 press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the D.O.E. has not bid out most of its bus contracts for 33 years and it's time to find cost savings.
"Since then, the Department of Education’s cost for busing has escalated from $71 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion a year today – an increase of something like about 1,550 percent. As these contracts expire, D.O.E. is bidding them out now and offering them to the lowest responsible bidder. We just cannot afford what this has cost us so far, and we think that by putting it up for competitive bid we will be able to do better," the mayor said.
Walcott noted that the city spends almost $7,000 dollars annually for every child using a school bus. Last year new contracts for buses transporting some pre-kindergarten students saved the city $95 million over five years. The current bid covers routes that cost the city over $900 million over five years, he said, and are set to expire June 30.
A citywide strike or job action could affect more than 150,000 students, including parochial students with special needs. The city said it's prepared to offer metro cards and transit reimbursements to affected families.