New York City’s unionized school bus drivers may go on strike this week, creating a massive headache for tens of thousands of parents who rely on the free bus service to get their kids to school. A strike would disrupt the commute of the approximately 152,000 children who ride the buses every school day.
A strike will not only take away valuable learning time from students, who already have missed many days due to the Hurricane Sandy disaster, but will also have economic repercussions as parents take time off from work to ferry their children to school.
A walkout would be especially painful to those with yeshivah children. Yeshivah parents will need to make separate transportation arrangements to get their sons and daughters to their respective schools. The loss of school bus service would be the loss of one of the few meager services yeshivah parents receive in return for paying the highest taxes of any other city in the nation.
The union is upset because the Department of Education is opening the bidding process to non-union companies for school bus contracts for special-needs children. The union claims it’s concerned that non-union companies won’t be able to provide the same level of care that is necessary for the children.
That’s nonsense. As the city’s school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, has made clear, the training and experience of the non-union drivers is comparable to those who are members of local 1180, the Amalgamated Transit Union. Drivers must be certified and will undergo 30 hours of in-service training. In addition, they will have to retake a road test every two years. There’s no reason to be concerned that the new drivers will not be as qualified as those holding a union card.
What the union is really concerned about is that it won’t be able to soak New York City taxpayers at will. Currently, New Yorkers are paying a whopping $1.1 billion for school bus service, an average of $6,900 per student, or $38 for a round trip to school. That’s an outrageous amount when you consider that Greyhound charges less than $30 round trip to Philadelphia on a coach bus equipped with air conditioning and reclining seats; $49 will take you as far as Portland, Oregon. In fact, New York City pays more than double the cost per child as the next largest school system, Los Angeles, where busing costs are only $3,100 a student. Or consider this: New York City accounts for 8 percent of the nation’s budget for school busing.
Opening up bidding to non-union companies has already saved the city millions. By hiring a non-union company to provide busing for kindergarten children, the city has already arranged to save $95 million over the next five years. Allowing competitive bidding for the bus routes of 22,000 special-needs children — only one sixth of the total — will save millions more. That’s money a cash-strapped city can certainly use to hire more teachers.
Taking on a union is not an easy matter. The transit union, no shrinking violet when it comes to supporting candidates, has doled out more than $900,000 to candidates in 2012. Some New York politicians have been recipients of that largesse: Charles Rangel, Jerome Nadler, David Weprin and Bill Owens, to name a few, have all taken thousands of dollars in donations from the union. Little wonder the union has been able to keep its racket going for so many years.
What the union should recognize is that the days when it could blackmail New Yorkers are in the rearview mirror. As it is, New Yorkers pay a fortune to educate their public school children. At an average cost of $20,276 per student (according to the Citizens Budget Commission), the cost is ridiculously above the average $10,292 per pupil spent nationwide.
New Yorkers haven’t been getting much bang for their education buck. While education costs continue to skyrocket, New York schools have barely improved. The four-year high-school graduation rate is still an abysmal 60 percent, and only 20 percent of those who do graduate are considered fit to enter college without remediation.
In the years ahead, the DOE has to be tougher when negotiating contracts with all its union personnel, even the almighty teacher’s union. New York spends 63 percent of its budget on salaries, benefits and pension costs, the highest in the U.S. Pension costs have gone up by 40 percent in the last two years alone. Clearly, that rate is unsustainable. Calling the bluff of the big wheels in the transit union is the first stop to saner and wiser spending of taxpayer dollars on the education of New York’s schoolchildren.