MANHATTAN — Moments after a press conference held by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott calling on the bus drivers' union to stop scaring city students with threats of a strike, hundreds of parents and drivers gathered at City Hall Park to demonstrate widespread support for the drivers.
Organized by several parent groups and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents school bus drivers, the oversized rally was scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall, but was punted by police to the nearby public park due to high turnout, organizers said.
“It was supposed to be a little press conference on the steps of City Hall,” said Sara Catalinotto, co-founder of Parents to Improve School Transportation, who spoke at the rally. She estimated over 1,000 showed up instead. “People really felt this in their bones, so they came out.”
An hour after the large group amassed at the park, however, at least a dozen members of the NYPD began clearing the group out, and shut down City Hall Park.
"The park is closed,” an officer told a reporter for DNAinfo.com New York. Once it was cleared of protestors, the park was reopened.
Parent Johnnie Stevens, 58, fumed after he sent his son, 10, home, fearing over the strict policing. He called the redirection of the gathered crowd "a violation" of his rights.
“They were letting 10 people at a time into the park,” Stevens said. “There were over a thousand people outside…[The DOE] had their press conference but we can’t even get onto the City Hall steps. What is that? What am I supposed to think of that as a parent?”
The union has threatened to strike in response to new Department of Education plans to accept nationwide bids for more than 1,100 school bus routes — about a sixth of total routes. Current contracts are set to expire June 30, 2013.
Chancellor Walcott, who spoke at 12:30 p.m. at Tweed Courthouse, said an open bidding process for bus routes was long overdue.
“After more than 33 years without any significant competitive bidding for new school-age yellow bus service, we are now issuing a request for bids,” he said.
“Last year, we bid out contracts for pre-kindergarten yellow bus service and saved the city over $95 million over a five-year period. We can anticipate significant savings by bidding out these school-age contracts as well.”
Busing costs have risen from $71 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion a year today, according to DOE figures. The union is hoping to secure job guarantees for its 7,700 member workers even if new bus companies are hired.
Jimmy Hedge, a board member for Local 1181, said he snuck into the DOE’s pre-bid conference aimed at bus companies interested in bidding for the routes. Several of the city’s proposed changes, like busing special education students with the general student population, troubles him, he said, but the possible elimination of driver seniority disturbed him the most.
“They have ridiculous answers to stupid questions,” Hedge said, speaking of the city. “You’re telling drivers and [student] escorts who have been around for years and years…you’re no longer needed. If you need a job, you can go to the new bus companies and apply as a new employee and start all over again.”
School bus driver Alvis Newell, 54, fears inexperienced bus drivers will compromise the safety of children, particularly those with special needs.
“You’ve got so many kids to deal with [as a school bus driver],” Newell said. “You have autistic kids, kids with Down syndrome, kids with Cerebral Palsy and you have to be patient with these kids. You can’t just have drivers who don’t have experience dealing with these kids.”
Walcott dismissed the idea that new drivers would put students in harm’s way at the earlier conference.
“Seniority doesn’t guarantee safety,” he said.