Officials said it appears a strike by public school bus drivers is imminent despite union denials, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city is prepared.

The union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the city have been through long negotiations over the Department of Education's plans to issue bids for new contracts without employee protection provisions.

Although a spokeswoman for the union denied rumors that 8,000 school bus drivers will strike on Wednesday, schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott Sunday said the walkout is a matter of "when, not if."

Walcott accused the union of being irresponsible.

"They are holding all of our students hostage," he said at a news conference Sunday.

The union has said it would give at least 24 hours notice before a work stoppage, and Walcott said the city has a contingency for the 150,000 affected students.

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Parents will receive MetroCards or reimbursement for their mileage if they drive their kids to school.

"Every parent or guardian must weigh the best possible solution for their child," Walcott said.

The city hasn't issued a bid for school bus contracts in 33 years and the chancellor said the recent bid, which affects a sixth of the total contracts, aims to cut down on the $1.1 billion annual cost for student bus services.

The union, however, said the bids will cost jobs and put inexperienced drivers behind the wheel.

Walcott and Bloomberg reiterated that the courts ruled employee protection provisions are illegal. "There's nothing the city can do to meet the union's demands," Bloomberg said in his radio address Sunday.