NEW YORK, N.Y.— Parents of special-education students are calling on the city to restore job protections for school-bus drivers and matrons. They say that would help solve chronic problems with lateness and unreliability in the system that transports more than 150,000 children, primarily those in special education, to school and back.
The problems, such as buses taking two hours or more to get kids to school, stem largely from private bus companies paying so little they can’t retain staff, Shamel E. Lawrence, parent representative and co-president of the District 75 Council — the citywide special-education district — told LaborPress before a small rally by parents in Union Square May 15.
That, he said, is the result of the Bloomberg administration’s 2013 elimination of “employee protection provisions.” Those required the private bus companies receiving new contracts for routes from the city Office of Pupil Transportation to hire the previous contractor’s workers at the same pay, benefits, seniority, and scheduling. Matrons could make roughly twice minimum wage, and drivers more.
Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg argued the provisions made it difficult to cut costs, and claimed that a court had ruled they interfered with competition. A month-long strike by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 failed to stop him.
Restoring those protections, Lawrence says, is necessary because “it will help them provide better services to our kids.”
His 8-year-old son relies on the private-bus system to get from Manhattan to his school in Queens, which has an “inclusion” program where special-ed kids can take regular classes. On Friday, May 12, Lawrence said, both the driver and the matron on the route were out sick, and the bus company failed to notify either the school or the parents.
“These are issues our parents face with these busing companies,” he added.
Brooklyn mother Beth Eisgrau-Heller told the rally that her 11-year-old son goes to a school in Hillside, Queens because it was the only suitable one her family could afford: He is “thriving” in its small classes after being “overloaded” in regular-size classes, she said. But it takes a long time to get there, as routes are often doubled up because there are not enough drivers.
“My son should not be on a bus for two hours or more,” she said. Last fall, the city began using its LimoSys program, in which it hires livery, Uber, or Lyft taxis to bring Medicaid patients to doctors’ appointments, to transport pupils who’d normally be bused.
“Some of our kids cannot make it in,” says United Federation of Teachers executive board member Joanna Brown. “If they do come in, it’s two hours late. It’s a mess.”
She’s an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at P94, a District 75 school on the Lower East Side that has inclusion classes with the elementary and middle school it shares the building with. Some of her students have to get up at 6 a.m. because they’re coming from upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
“We really need everybody to come together and help us,” she says.
Parents to Improve School Transportation, the group which organized the rally, is advocating a “School Bus Bill of Rights.” It includes restoring employee protection provisions; having only one school campus per bus route; no routes longer than 90 minutes; having communication with parents that extend beyond the Internet and in languages such as Spanish and Chinese; and giving Local 1181 a good contract when it comes up for renewal next year.
However, the group has had limited success reaching the unions representing bus drivers and matrons —ATU Local 1181 and Teamsters Locals 917 and 1205.
The problems won’t fade out because summer is coming, Lawrence told LaborPress. Children will still need transportation to get to the city’s Summer Rising day-camp program for kindergarten through eighth grade, which begins July 5.
“I just want this issue to get right for our kids,” he says. “How can they get an education if we don’t provide the proper transportation to get them to school?”