Four hours of transporting a child to school each day instead of being able to go to work, or not having the ability to send a child to school at all, are among the situations the 150,000 New York City families whose children rely on school bus service are dealing with now that school bus drivers are on strike.
“Off to school,” chirped Roseanna Incantalupo as she tried to stay positive as she pushed her 17 year-old daughter in a wheelchair to the family’s minivan. Incantalupo also has a 10 year-old daughter she had to take to school Wednesday morning. Both girls usually take the school bus, but thanks to the strike, neither had school bus service, and their mom had to pick up the slack.
“It all depends on traffic,” Incantalupo told PIX11 News. “We’ll see what happens.” She had to drive a 13-mile route across Staten Island in order to drop off both daughters.
At her 10 year-old’s school, I.S. 7, a mile-and-a-half from their home in Prince’s Bay, Staten Island, the administration had set up a row of at least a dozen teachers at the curb in front of the school.
“We’re doing a stop and drop, let’s go!” shouted an administrator, as teachers waved on car after car to drop off students quickly, and then leave.
Incantalupo wasted no time. She got her 10 year-old daughter out of the minivan door in seconds. That was the easy part. The far bigger challenge was driving in a freezing rain storm the next 12 miles, from the southwestern tip of Staten Island to the northeast end, where her daughter’s school, the Hungerford School for students with special needs, is located.
The serpentine journey took an hour and two minutes one way, and it’s a trip Incantalupo is going to have do roundtrip twice daily. That’s four hours of work she missed on Wednesday, and will miss every day until the strike is over.
“I’m not happy,” she told PIX11 News. “Mayor Bloomberg, give the bus drivers and matrons what they want so we don’t have to spend all this time money and gas. Please do the right thing.”
Striking school bus drivers and matrons want their employee protection provision, or EPP, to be guaranteed in any future contract. The EPP would require the city government and the school bus companies that contract with the city to recognize employees’ seniority and to continue to pay them at at least the rate they’re making now.
For most drivers and matrons, those wages are at least $14.00 per hour. The mayor, in an attempt to lower the cost per student for transportation from $6900 to thousands of dollars less, is proposing signing new transportation contracts with school bus companies that would reduce starting wages to the $7.00 per hour range, according to the school bus drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181.
As for the families affected by the walkout, the city is reimbursing them 55 cents for each mile they have to travel to and from school, or is providing free Metrocards for students and parents to use.
In the case of Maryann Virga, the mother of a 16 year-old student who requires wheelchair transport to get to the Hungerford School, her hour-long commute will result in a reimbursement of about $11.00 per day.
She said that will not compensate for what it costs her to transport her son in the family’s specially equipped van.
“Look at this guzzler,” Virga siad, pointing to her vehicle. “No, definitely not.” She said that the four hours of work time she’s losing by transporting her son over a route that’s usually handled by professional drivers and aides is compromising her ability to perform all of her duties at her job. She also recalled that the last school bus strike, in 1979, lasted 14 weeks.
“If [this strike is] three months, I’ll probably lose my job,” she said. “Or have to quit my job.”
Nonetheless, she considers herself fortunate to have a van and to be able to provide transportation for her family. On Wednesday, about 25 percent of all students in the public schools’ special needs district did not go to school. That’s at least 10,000 families that simply did not have the means to get their children to school.
Also, at the Hungerford School, many special needs families come from other boroughs in order to have their children attend. That means they’re having to pay $26 in tolls per day to drive to school.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott tried to show sympathy and support for the hard pressed families, at a City Hall news conference.
“A lot of our parents were able to surmount those difficult circumstances [today],” said Walcott. They had to take multiple buses and subways to get to school, but thanks to them, our children were in school.”
Walcott told PIX11 News that he had met with advocacy groups to try and get increased Access-A-Ride service for special needs students who had poor access to public transportation or private vehicles, but could make no guarantees.
Meanwhile, picketers are on round-the-clock shifts at one of the largest school bus facilities in the city, the Amboy Bus Company, in Ridgewood, Queens. The school bus drivers’ union, the bus company owners and the mayor have given no indication that they’ll sit down at a negotiating table any time soon.
And in a sign that a prolonged strike could become bitter, at four non-union school bus yards on Wednesday morning, picketers tried to prevent buses from going out on runs. Police had to be called in. They made no arrests.