The Finance and Education Committees of the City Council held a hearing Friday morning with Chancellor Dennis Walcott of the Department of Education on the cost of student transportation, in light of the on-going bus driver strike over the city's request for bids on school bus contracts. The strike is now in its fourth week.
Councilman Robert Jackson, as chair of the Education Committee, largely led the hearing, during which he repeatedly accused the Bloomberg administration of attempted union-busting.
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Jackson scolded Bloomberg and Walcott for misrepresenting statistics, pointing out that the given cost of transit per pupil — which Bloomberg and Walcott have reported as nearly $7,000 — is actually averaged between the cost for special needs students, which is $15,000 "due to the need for escorts and other requirements," and the cost for general education students, which is about $2,600, according to Jackson.
The bus contracts in question are for the bus routes for special needs students.
As for the mayor and chancellor's complaints that the city pays more for busing than cities in other states do, Jackson scoffed, "I don't know why anyone would be surprised by that."
"Don't we spend more for everything here?" Jackson asked, noting the higher cost of living in general.
Other speakers at the hearing included parents of special needs children, as well as a special needs bus matron of eight years, who broke down crying as she spoke of her charges.
"We love those kids," she said "It's not only about the money, it's about those precious kids."
Chancellor Walcott noted that the bids for bus contracts are due today, Monday February 11, and will be opened tomorrow.
Department of Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg told Metro the bids "will be reviewed and then awarded to the lowest responsible bidders."
Why are they striking?
The bus drivers' union is demanding that an Employee Protection Provision be included in the new request for bids, so that current drivers will maintain their positions and salaries regardless of new management. The union alleges that EPPs would assure that the drivers and matrons be trained to care for special needs children.
One mother of an autistic child talked about the bus matron on her child's bus, "a wonderful woman named Maria."
"The idea that she would make even less than she's making now horrifies me," she said.
Walcott said repeatedly that the city is maintaining a rigorous training program for all bus drivers, but Jackson argued that the request for bids only asks that the company have 20 months of prior management experience, and does not include requirements for bus driver experience.
Support from city falls short
The city has provided MetroCards for parents and promised reimbursement for those who need to take car services or taxis during the school bus strike, but the parents at the hearing said that nobody has been reimbursed yet, and that the city-provided list of car services is useless.
One mother reportedly had to call 20 different services off the list, and was denied service by all of them.
"Twenty different services said we shouldn't be on that list or we're not doing that anymore," reported Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinate at Advocates for Children. Moroff also noted that until recently, the city was not reimbursing parents for their trips back home after dropping their child off, or back to school to pick their child up, only covering the trips for which the child was actually present. Some students have reportedly been asked to attend different schools for locational convenience.
Moroff and Councilman Jackson both emphasized that special needs students who cannot make it to school are not only missing classes, but also critical services including behavioral, occupational, speech and physical therapy.
One of the mothers present read a statement from another mother who reported that her autistic child was so exhausted by the over-stimulation of a two and a half hour bus ride to and from school that he had already missed three days over the course of the 12 day strike.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat