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NYC schools, parents brace for possible school bus strike

Union workers rally at City Hall over a

Union workers rally at City Hall over a possible school bus strike. (Jan. 5, 2013) Credit: Linda Rosier

New York City schools and parents are bracing for a possible strike by bus drivers and bus attendants who say the city's call for contract bids without employee protections threatens their jobs as well as student safety.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott detailed a contingency plan for the 152,000 students who would be affected, including issuing MetroCards, reimbursing parents for miles driven and posting lessons online for students stuck at home.

Walcott Sunday accused Local 1811 of the Amalgamated Transit Union of "jerking our kids around" by threatening a strike without saying when it would do so.

"It does not need to happen at all," Walcott said.

Hundreds of union members and supporters, meanwhile, packed City Hall Park for a rally to criticize the city for failing to protect their jobs. Drivers and attendants said their stringent employment screening process, qualifications such as CPR training, and familiarity with parents, students and roads make them best suited to serve the system.

The contracts for certain bus routes expire June 30.

Bus driver Samuel Rivera, 38, of upstate Orange County, held a sign saying he handles "NYC's most precious cargo."

Rose DeMatteis, 66, of the Bronx, and a bus matron, said she had a message for the city: "Don't put a price tag on the safety of our children."

No one at the rally could say when or if they would strike.

Labor officials said they hope to avert a strike and want to meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office.

"We're exploring every option," union president Michael Cordiello said. "A strike is a strong possibility, probably not tomorrow. It is an option, but it's not our ultimate goal."

The city has put out the first competitive bids for "school-age yellow bus contracts" in 33 years, and responses are due Feb. 11, school officials said. The average cost of busing a student in the city is $6,900 annually compared to $3,124 in Los Angeles, officials said.

The bids do not include an employee protection provision, which was ruled illegal by the New York Court of Appeals in 2011, officials said.

Cordiello said union lawyers believe the EPP can be included in the bids, but would not detail how. The EPP has been in the union's contract since 1979, the last year there was a strike, he said.

Sara Catalinotto, a lower Manhattan parent who is planning car pools for her autistic 10-year-old son in preparation for a strike, said the city should find a way to legally put the EPP back if officials "care about busing our children."

Catalinotto, 49, of advocacy group Parents to Improve School Transportation, said of the EPP: "It's the protection that ends up helping our kids."

Tatyana Fanshteyn, 32, of Staten Island, said she would have to take her children -- ages 3, 6 and 9 -- to school by train and public bus if there is a strike. She supports the union, she said, but added, "I depend on bus services every morning, and I hope something can be worked out."

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