Students and Families Suffer Most In Bus Strike and City Has Itself to Blame

As more than 8,000 school bus drivers and matrons formed picket lines around the city this morning, some 152,000 students and their families were forced to find alternative means of transportation in the pouring rain.

Jackie Ceonzo, mother of a 17-year-old autistic son, had to find a way to get her son from their home in the Upper West Side of Manhattan to his school located downtown in Chelsea -- all the while battling the flu and nasty weather.

"You know what the worst part is? It's that my son doesn't understand, and he loves the bus," Ceonzo tells the Voice. "So, the worst part is telling him that there's no bus coming and he's still in school. He's autistic so he's going to be so jammed up... It's not like I can just get on the subway with him."

For Ceonzo, as with the families of the some 54,000 other special-needs students affected by the strike, the journey won't be as simple as hopping on public transportation or jumping in a cab.

It's often difficult for children with autism to adapt to unfamiliar settings -- particularly settings as chaotic as the morning rush on public transportation. And, if parents of wheel-chair-bound students want avoid the extreme rigors of transporting their children on hectic and crowded MTA buses, they'll have to find a car service that can accommodate their child's condition.

Maggie Moroff of Advocates For Children tells the Voice that the organization's biggest concern is for the families that the many alternative resources provided by the Department of Education won't reach. For instance, those who need car service to get their child to and from school may not have the money upfront to pay for it while the DOE processes reimbursements.

So, make no mistake about it, families and students are the ones suffering the most here.

Despite this fact, there is room to lay blame on more than just one of two parties that caused this situation. And, while both Ceonzo and Moroff declined to take a side in the stand-off between Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 and the city, it seems that the city is playing a much larger role in the strike than it's letting on.

During a news conference concerning the strike on Monday, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott did their best to heap sole responsibility for the strike on Local 1181.

"This is a strike against our students, and this will have devastating impact," Walcott said.

The union is seeking to incorporate protections for the salary and benefits of its veteran bus drivers and matrons in the next contract. Following the 1979 bus driver's strike, the city implemented the Employee Protection Provision, which forced bus companies to give preference to laid-off drivers based on a master seniority list when the companies entered into new contracts with the city.

The EPP ensures that veteran drivers will be able to carry over the benefits and wage increases, which max out at $30/hour, which they've incurred over their careers. Bloomberg maintains that the city is legally restricted from including the EPP in the upcoming contract based on a ruling from the N.Y. State Court of Appeals.

"This is illegal as far as what they're asking us to do," Bloomberg said. "The State Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state has ruled and we are following the letter of the law."

Like many other services contracted out by the city now, bus companies will secure contracts with the DOE based on the lowest-responsible-bidder-system. Bus companies took the DOE to court to prevent it from adding an EPP to the separate contract it operates for bus services for Pre-K and early intervention students -- a contract that's been running on the lowest-bidder system and without an EPP clause since 1979.

The court ruled in June 2011 that the city could not add the EPP to a new Pre-K/EI contract -- maintaining that it inhibits competition and could potentially cause companies to inflate costs under the lowest-responsible bidder system in order to compensate for the higher wage and benefit costs.

"In the case of a new contractor, the EPPs proscribe the use of the contractor's work force altogether, as long as a single employee of the predecessor contractor is available for employment," the court opined. EPPs dictate who the contractor must hire and what salary and benefits they must provide and makes these matters nonnegotiable."

But, the court decision only pertained to the Pre-K/EL contract, and it didn't indicate that a veteran employee protection system of any kind is impermissible. It did note that the DOE failed to offer a compelling enough case that EPPs won't drive up costs.

So, that does mean that a protection plan can be devised could be "compelling" enough to include in the upcoming contract. The union says that the city refuses to discuss a plan of any kind.

Based on the Bloomberg's comments Monday, the city seems more interested in operating on the cheap. He noted that New York City spends more money on bus transportation per student than any other city in the U.S. -- roughly two times more than Los Angeles.

The billionaire mayor actually found some time to take a not-so-subtle jab at teacher salaries and union protections as he explained that less money needs to be spent on busing and more on the classroom.

"We have increased pressure to pay for the services in the classroom, and the cost for the services keep rising," Bloomberg said. "Remember our teachers, on average, get a 3 percent raise every single year for the first 20 years [that] they're teachers. And, we just have to pay for that."


The union contends that it's really asking for protections for the drivers of the 54,000 special needs students who ride school buses. And, as we learned at October's City Council hearing on the dismal start that school buses got off to begin this school year, driver and matron experience with special-needs students is crucial to smoother rides for kids and families.

"These are the drivers who know the roads and are adept at maneuvering busses while navigating the congested streets of New York," Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said at the October hearing. "Our matrons are the most experienced in assisting students, especially those with special needs or physical disabilities."

This has been a particularly tough year for Ceonzo who said that her son has been on four different buses, and was just beginning to settle into a good groove with his latest bus driver and matron. So, while it seems that the inclusion of an EPP doesn't ensure that students will always have the best drivers and matrons, it does seem certain that operating on the cheap won't help families already struggling with transportation woes.

"I find it hard to fight with these bus drivers...It is not an easy job," Ceonzo says. "I Just wish everyone would worry about what is the best service for the kids. [I'm] not really sure which side is for that."

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