Listening to Families and Drivers

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How we should be hearing reality during a needless bus strike By Helen Rosenthal As we now know, New York City spends more than twice as much busing our kids to school compared to any other city. The mayor's plan to bid the contracts to lowest-bidder bus companies who keep their costs down by hiring the newest, lowest-salaried employees-is not likely to have much of an impact on the $1.1 billion the city spends annually-nor is it structurally sound. Eventually workers' salaries will increase again with longevity. Real budget savings will happen when the routes are managed more efficiently. Parent coordinators on the Upper West Side say that it's not unusual to have two kids who live on the same block come in two separate buses with fewer than six kids on each bus-buses that are meant for 20 kids. The reason that New York City spends so much money on buses is because they are used inefficiently. It's not about the union drivers and matrons asking for job protections-and frankly it is in our best interest to have drivers and matrons with experience, especially when they are helping our special needs kids get to school. We count on city government to spend our tax dollars wisely and efficiently. How efficient are the 7,700 bus routes that are devised by the Department of Education? According to the DOE, nearly 400 routes have fewer than 6 children, and 27 routes have just one child. How many routes are filled to 90 percent capacity? What incentive does the DOE have to maintain efficient routes? Meanwhile the strike, going into its fourth week, is having a real impact on kids, their families, and the workers. One Upper West Side family struggles daily to get their son to his special needs school in Brewster, 23 miles away, along with their two other children who attend local public school. After a harrowing year identifying the right school, he finally settled into a routine with a bus driver and matron who are extremely kind and attentive. Needless to say, all of that is turned upside down again. Maria, a bus driver who lives in the Bronx, is striking because she has seven years of experience, makes $34,000 annually and is mother to three young children-asking her to give up her "seniority" would have too great an impact on her family. As a taxpayer and parent, I appreciate her seniority-her commitment-to the kids she safely brings to schools. Our children deserve experienced drivers, matrons, and mechanics-we count on them every day. At issue is the RFP (Request for Proposals) that the mayor plans to issue this week so bus companies can bid for these contracts. Unlike the previous contract, the RFP does not include the employee protections that give workers with seniority first dibs on available jobs. ATU 1181, the union representing the striking bus workers, recently asked Mayor Bloomberg for a "cooling off" period which allows them to go back to work with the understanding that the Mayor would hold off on putting their contracts out to bid. This would give time for the two sides to come to an understanding about employee protections; it would also give the DOE more time to properly analyze how many bus routes are needed. Most importantly, a "cooling off" period would end the disruption in the lives of the 150,000 children and their families who count on the bus each day. It would allow parents, drivers, matrons, and mechanics to get back to work. Our New York City economy needs this to happen. Helen Rosenthal is former Chair of Community Board 7 and is currently a candidate for NYC Council, the Upper West Side District 6.

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