NEW YORK CITY — Yellow school buses were on the job Monday morning, despite bus drivers’ threat to strike — but city and union officials warned the prospect still looms large.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told Fox 5 News' "Good Day New York" that buses were running normally Monday, but warned that parents are "not out of the woods" yet.
“We have a responsibility to prepare for a strike,” said Walcott, adding that schools have been stocked with MetroCards in the event that drivers fail to report to work Tuesday or later this week.
"It will be disruptive, especially the first day. But then as we get through the first day, it should settle in," he said.
Michael Cordiello, president of the bus drivers’ union, ATU Local 1181, said in a statement the union is “exploring every option to avert a strike," but is "fully prepared to do so if necessary."
The two sides are locked in a bitter battle over the Department of Education’s decision to put more than 1,100 school bus contracts — about a sixth of total routes — up for bid for the first time in more than 30 years. Current contracts are set to expire June 30, 2013.
The city currently spends roughly $1.1 billion a year, or $6,900 per student, on busing.
“It’s an absurd number,” said Walcott, who has argued the money can be better spent in the classroom.
The union is furious that the new contracts would not include job protections for its 7,700 members, even if new bus companies are hired. Drivers say the move will jeopardize student safety.
“The elimination of the [job protections] in this bid not only impacts the safety of general education school children, but especially impacts New York City's special education children who are most in need of an experienced, steady, and professional workforce,” Cordiello said in a statement.
“Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott are attempting to take away the jobs of thousands of experienced school bus drivers and matrons who provide years of unmatched training and experience for all of our children,” he said. “Experience that cannot be replaced.
But Bloomberg, speaking during a press conference in The Bronx, said the courts have legally barred the city from including such job protections, and said that no company would bid on the contracts if they were forced to hire all existing workers at their current pay.
"The city has an obligation to control its costs,” he said.
Walcott said that, even without the job guarantees, bus drivers will still need to abide by stringent safety standards.
"They're jerking our children around," said Walcott, who accused the drivers of "holding our children hostage for their own purposes.”
"All we're saying," he said, "is we want competition, competition for bids."