March 27, 2014
Committee Members, Staff, and other participants in today’s hearing:
We in Parents to Improve School Transportation thank you for recognizing that the voices of the stakeholders in school busing must be heard. My name is Amy Herren and I am here to comment on how the trend towards drastically lower bids in this industry affects another important and completely innocent group of stakeholders: the riders.
P.I.S.T. has been in existence since the Fall of 2010 but has gotten more complaints this school year than any previous year. After the awarding of the non-EPP contracts last May, as company owners (who may or may not put profits before the needs of our children) became more reckless in cutting costs, parents experienced the following results:
1-Lack of reliable air conditioning during the summer of 2013–our written testimony includes a letter to the Dept of Transportation documenting children coming home red, sweaty and dehydrated. In fact, we went to a bus yard in Queens and took pictures of vehicles pulling in with the windows wide open to get some air. From the owners’ point of view, why invest in repairs or upgrades if your future is uncertain…but what about the health and safety of those who are on those hot buses for several hours a day?
2-Rush hiring and training in the last weeks of August at the lowest paying companies, followed by rapid turnover. I called Jofaz and Philip companies in the summer to inquire about the job requirements; both of them completely downplayed the importance of experience. Another parent who is here today was an observer at Happy Child, which didn’t even bother to issue uniforms so that children have a visual cue to who should pick them up.
3-Companies with EPP still intact apparently sought ways to cut corners so they could compete, all of which harmed and continue to harm untold numbers of children. We are sure that routes were merged / condensed in September and at each pick.
Our written testimony also includes a sampling of complaints about long routes. This is one from mid-October from an agency:
“(My client’s) son is not using the yellow bus service at this point because it takes 2 hours (!) in the morning and 2 hours in the evening for him to reach his destination, please note that R has in place the medical alert (F)
…we are talking about a child who requires medical attention who CANNOT BE ON THE BUS MORE THAN ONE HOUR, is not that the parent doesn’t wants for her child to be on the bus, is that he cannot do it.
The parent has limited resources and cannot afford to pay every day for transportation not only for her son but for the nurse as well."
4- If we are hearing from many well-informed active parent leaders that their children’s bus routes now include one additional school—thus adding 30 minutes to each journey—what is happening to the most isolated and disenfranchised parents? You may have seen that a mom who started a petition against this practice on Sunday had already gathered over 330 signatures as of Tuesday.
5-Owners who close and open companies in an attempt to decrease the wages and benefits they’ll be required to pay out. The sellout of Atlantic Express led to numerous stories such as:
“The New Dawn Transit co. called a home last night confirming a route but never showed up in the morning. They did pick up the child for the pm route and gave him to his mother even though they had not met her before. The matron had DOE ID but no uniform.”
DOE may have worked hard on the court deal but it waited until the evening of Dec 17, after parent and union activists held a rally, to begin to tell schools and parents what was coming.
After the winter break, as buses in a neglected condition were moved from yard to yard, we heard of many cases like this one on January 8:
“This morning my bus driver called me at 7:07 to tell me that the bus company, Logan, had given his bus to someone else so he didn't have a bus to drive and he was waiting for a replacement. My son is usually picked up at 7:20am.
At 7:18 I called Logan to inquire. They told me there was a delay and that the bus would be at my house soon. I asked if the bus driver was on the way and she said "yes". So I called my bus driver back and he said he was still waiting and was not on the road.
I called the OPT and registered a complaint.
My son was not picked up until around 9:10 (1 hour and 50 minutes later than usual). My son's school starts at 8:45.”
The next big sellout of (some of) Reliant’s routes was noted for an almost total failure to inform parents, as you can see from this envelope postmarked the day after the change took effect and received two days after that. A parent at a school on Roosevelt Island told us:
“When Reliant changed over to All American several weeks ago, an estimated 10 buses left our children stranded without notification to the parents/guardians or school...this is unsafe and a detriment to our children's health, negatively impacting on their quality of function. Subsequently due to multiple issues, the boys have missed school instruction time due to multiple bus breakdowns. I've had to resort to other means of getting them to school, paying for a cab to school multiple times and picking them up at school.”
6- Other cases of poor communication around the shuffling of routes include this story from Jan 2 involving a non-EPP company:
“I received a call from OPT on Sunday stating that my daughter, formerly on an Atlantic/Hoyt route, would be on Safe Coach. She has been waiting since 7:20 am. The bus company phone is not answering/busy at 718.257-2444. OPT states THAT TODAY THEY WILL NOT CALL BUS COMPANIES! Lee ann at OPT told me that is the only number OPT has for this company, that she does not know who Safe's parent company is.
School told me to Call John Eric Arrinis - Queens Inspector. He is not in office, his voicemail is not set up, person who took message at OPT hung up on me when I asked for his name.
(later:) The bus arrived to pick up my daughter at 8:23am so she was late to school. Two kids had thrown up on the bus and my daughter, who gets motion sickness, had to sit and smell it because the matron does not clean it up.
The Queens Inspector did get in touch and also could not reach the bus company.”
7- We continue to meet drivers and matrons who love their work and would love to continue but have either been laid off or have given up and retired due to one displacement and mistreatment too many. In each case, children lose a skilled service provider and an ally in their quest for equal access to education.
To us, school busing is an educational necessity and a civil right that should be a public service. Parents are disgruntled when ideological or corporate objectives such as busting a union, or paying national banks that we’ve already bailed out, take precedence over providing our children with a stable and professional workforce to do busing well and safely!
New York City needs to put serious thought into standardizing busing quality and conditions by taking over the vehicles and yards, either by purchase or eminent domain. Perhaps this could fit under Capital Improvement spending. Wouldn’t the city eventually recoup the funds by eliminating the profit factor?
Or is our leadership content to take a chance on a spike in accidents and civil rights violations that could cost not only money, but lives? Let the record show that three prominent law firms want to work with PIST. Nine pages of findings by Civil Rights Attorney Norman Siegel are enclosed in our written testimony.
We wonder, why does DOE have highly paid employees tied up several times a year in bid meetings and negotiations with dozens of companies when they could be fixing bad routes, or better yet, preventing them? How about asking active or retired drivers how much they would charge the DOE to work on routing, inspections, and problem-solving, in consultation with parents and disabled self-advocates?
What a waste to have thousands of workers reapplying for their same job and getting fitted for a new uniform in a new company, only to have another rotation a few weeks later where they or others repeat this same process. Couldn’t that time be better spent on thorough training to help the workers help our children?
Special education routes get the most attention but we must be aware that general education bus riders are also profoundly affected when the industry is downgrading rather than upgrading. Here is a quote from a mom to Deputy Chancellor Grimm regarding a company that went out in June and then suddenly acquired new routes in January:
Today the bus did not show up. It was 9 degrees out, as you probably noticed.
Rainbow hung up on a parent who called from our stop. Then the company took its phone off the hook -- many other parents on the route were calling all morning and getting a busy signal. The fact that the city continues to spend our money on these worthless gangsters who have no regard for their workforce and have no interest in providing reliable service to children, even in freezing temperatures, is a scandal.
This city must have drivers and matrons who are experienced, dedicated and empowered to speak out about risky situations. P.I.S.T. has made this position clear within our School Bus Bill of Rights campaign. This issue is so popular that we have been invited to speak to groups ranging from PTAs to Fulton Houses Tenant Association, District 75 Community Education Council, Fathers Forum New York, health clinics in the Bronx, Lower East Side Foster Parents Support Circle, Queens County Parents with Autism Coalition, to civil service workers’ unions and the national Save our Schools Coalition.
Restoring Employee Protection Provisions would be a good first step toward proving that the city is serious about reversing the harm that has been done to busing, and winning the trust of our communities.