The following are Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s remarks as delivered at City Hall today.
“It’s a sad day. I think we all recognize, a week since the terrible tragedy in Connecticut. And our prayers, prayers of all the people in this city, I know are for the families for those that were killed. And we have a commitment to do everything we can to keep this terrible tragedy from happening again.
“Today, however, we’re talking about our schools, and I’m joined by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, as well as Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo.
“We are here because there is a strong possibility the union representing many school bus drivers and other bus workers will call a strike or a job action that would disrupt yellow bus service for more than 152,000 schoolchildren, beginning right after the holiday break.
“That would make it a lot harder for many students to get to school – and in a year when our students have already missed a week or more of school because of Hurricane Sandy – striking against our school children, we think, would be totally irresponsible.
“Nevertheless, we want to alert families to that possibility with ample time in advance to prepare.
“In a moment I’ll describe the steps the Department of Education is taking to ensure that, if and when there is a strike, it presents the least possible hardship to our schoolchildren and to their families.
“But first, let me take a minute to describe the circumstances of the dispute. They may sound familiar to many of you – they are essentially the same circumstances that led the union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, to threaten a strike last year – a threat that the union thankfully did not follow through on.
“Going through with a strike now would be unfair to our kids, and absolutely unacceptable.
“The Department of Education has released a request for bids for a multi-year contract for more than 1,100 school bus routes – about a sixth of Department of Education’s total routes.
“These routes serve 22,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade who have disabilities that require special transportation. The routes are currently covered by contracts that are set to expire on June 30, 2013, so at the end of this current school year.
“DOE has not bid out most of its bus contracts since 1979 – 33 years ago. Since then, 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, DOE 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.
“We did that last year for contracts serving school bus routes for pre-K students. As a result of those pre-K contracts, I’m happy to say the Department of Education is saving around $19 million for each year of the five-year contracts, for a total of approximately $95 million. We can, I think, anticipate significant savings from bidding out these school-age contracts as well. That’s money that we’ll be able to put back into the classroom to help our students.
“The school bus drivers’ union is considering a strike because the bid specifications that we’ve released do not include job guarantees for certain current drivers.
“Last year, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that such a guarantee could not legally be included in our contracts for pre-K school bus services under circumstances that are essentially the same today for these school-age contracts.
“So the union is protesting the exclusion of job guarantees that DOE is not allowed to provide in this request for bids. Let me repeat that: we are not legally permitted to do what they are asking – which would make a strike not only irresponsible, but totally pointless.
“While the routes being bid for now represent only a sixth of Department of Education’s 7,700 bus routes, the bus drivers’ union is considering a citywide strike or job action. That would disrupt transportation for all students using bus service, not only those on the routes being bid for.
“Last year, when faced with a threatened strike, DOE put in place a contingency plan to help ensure the least negative impact on students and their families. We’ve done the same this year – and we’ll do everything in our power to mitigate the effects of a strike should it occur.
“The steps we’re going to take to get kids to school have been outlined in a letter that is going home with all public school students today. There are copies available for the reporters here. It’s also available on the City’s web site, NYC.gov.
“But let me give you the basic elements of the plan: In the event of a strike, all students who currently receive yellow bus service from a designated school bus stop can get a temporary MetroCard that will be valid as long as the strike continues. These MetroCards will be made available at schools and should be requested through the school’s general office.
“We have informed the MTA that they may need to accommodate additional riders. We’ve also asked families to consider alternative means of transportation to school in case of a disruption.
“Parents of children in grades K through 2 may request an additional MetroCard – so kindergarten, first and second grade – my request an additional MetroCard for a parent or guardian to act as the child’s escort to school. So can parents of pre-school and school-age children with individual education plans, or IEPs, requiring transportation from their homes directly to their school.
“Parents of children grades K through 6 who get yellow bus service from a school bus stop, and who live in areas where public transportation to school is not an option, can get reimbursed for transportation costs.
“Parents of students who currently receive bus service who decide to drive their children to school will be reimbursed at a rate of 55 cents per mile. Parents who use a taxi or car service to transport their child to school will be reimbursed for the trip after completing a reimbursement form that will be available in schools’ general offices.
“We encourage families who drive or use a car service to carpool with their neighbors if at all possible, because if you have an awful lot of cars showing up at a school at the same time, there’s going to be a real traffic jam.
“Field trips using yellow bus service will obviously be cancelled if there is a bus service disruption. Afterschool programs will remain open, but no busing will be provided.
“Students who arrive at school late because of disruptions to yellow bus service will be excused for up to two hours. Children who are unable to attend school because of disruptions to yellow bus service will be marked absent with an explanation code that will ensure their attendance record is not negatively affected.
“If you have further transportation questions, you should call 311 or the Department of Education’s Pupil Transportation Hotline at 718-392-8855. You can also check NYC.gov for updates but I would not do anything other than call 311 and use NYC.gov.
“I know that even the possibility of a school bus strike presents hardships for parents. And if the strike should happen, it would do harm to our kids’ education.
“Every parent or guardian has to evaluate the particular needs of his or her child to make the best arrangements for transportation to the child’s school. And in the meantime, we hope that the drivers’ union will do the right thing and not proceed with a disruptive strike at the expense of City schoolchildren and taxpayers.
“Now let me turn over the floor to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.”
(YWN Desk – NYC)