Agitated City Council members spent more than two hours today grilling Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the city’s refusal to restore job protections for school bus drivers or intervene in their nearly monthlong strike.
The hearing took place more than three weeks into the strike on a day when many families’ tenuous transportation plans were complicated by the start of a snowstorm. Attendance in schools for students with disabilities, which have been hardest-hit by the strike, fell from 76 percent on Thursday to just 50 percent today.
Maria Uruchima, whose nightmarish commute includes 8 buses and 4 trains, said her son wasn’t feeling well, “so I just kept him home because it’s going to be crazy out anyways.”
Even before the inclement weather, at least 2,500 students who attend schools in District 75, which serve special education students with the highest needs, “were still home,” Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children, said in her prepared remarks. For students that made it to school, Moroff said parents sacrificed hours of their work days to get them there and many students arrived late anyway.
The plight of students and families came up occasionally, but the hearing centered more on the ongoing labor dispute between Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the city and the School Bus Coalition, which was absent. The stated purpose of the hearing was “the costs of student transportation,” but that got short shrift as well.
In his testimony, Walcott didn’t say much about transportation costs that the city faced, something that irked council officials who organized the hearing. The one dollar figure that Walcott did cite was the $95 million that the city expected to save from new five-year contracts for prekindergarten busing. Those contracts did not include seniority protections for bus drivers.
School transportation will cost the city $1.1 billion this year, according to the Comptroller’s office, and increase to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to the council, which had asked the education department to come with a prepared breakdown of how that money was spent.
The costs were relevant, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said in his opening remarks, because the city has often cited the high costs of bus transportation for why it needs to seek new and cheaper contracts.
“We’ve all read and heard lots of heated rhetoric and half-truths, claims and counterclaims about the cost of busing in New York City, and now it’s time for a reality check,” Jackson said. More than half of that amount is reimbursed by the state, a fact that Jackson said was not mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg during his many press conferences on the issue.
Later in the questioning, officials confirmed some the per-pupil cost breakdowns. Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support Services said the city spent an average of $6,900 per pupil on transportation — $2800 on general education students and $12,800 on students with special needs.
Jackson led the charge of criticism of Walcott. He accused Walcott of misleading the council on the city’s true intentions behind the labor conflict, suggesting he was either ignorant of the issues facing students, families and bus drivers in the strike, or he’s more nefarious than that.
“You’re like an ostrich with his head in the sand not willing to come out and deal with reality,” said Jackson, nearing the end of Walcott’s lengthy testimony, which once escalated into a tense exchange with a confrontational council member.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s about money, chancellor,” Jackson added. “I’m wondering whether or not this is about the Bloomberg Administration willing to attempt to try to break the back of the union.”
In response, the overflow room about 20 feet down the hallway, packed mostly with striking bus drivers, erupted in applause.
Walcott disputed the claim, saying that the city was getting rid of seniority-based job protections for its upcoming contract bidding process because they were legally obligated and to save money.
“We are not trying to break the union, as I’ve said over and over again,” Walcott said. “The union will still be in place even with the new bids.”
Walcott was defensive but remained even-tempered for most the of hearing. The exception came in response to questioning from Councilwoman Letitia James, a candidate for Public Advocate who repeatedly asked — and interrupted to answer herself — Walcott about the city’s interpretation of a 2011 court decision that he said justifies withholding job protections.
“You can come to the panel meetings and act out,” Walcott said, referring to the contentious Panel for Educational Policy meetings. “I’m not going to take it here.”