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School buses roll, but tensions remain

School buses left the Freeport Street lot in Dorchester Wednesday morning.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

School buses left the Freeport Street lot in Dorchester Wednesday morning.

Boston school officials will send out automated phone calls Friday morning only if there is a disruption in bus service, as officials try to slowly return to a state of normalcy three days after a surprise one-day bus strike.

Since the stoppage Tuesday morning, school officials have been auto-calling parents of the more than 30,000 students who rely on the buses to let them know if they were on the road. But since the buses have been rumbling through the streets for the past two days, officials have decided the daily alert is no longer necessary.

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Other contingency plans, however, will remain in place. Schools will still open an hour early to accommodate parents’ work schedules, for instance. School officials are encouraging parents to have back-up transportation plans in case problems emerge again.

“There is still uncertainty that hangs over each day,” said Brian Ballou, a School Department spokesman.

The strike was the first for the bus drivers union in 22 years. The union’s dispute with Veolia Corp., the private contractor that oversees the city’s four bus yards, remains volatile and full of drama.

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The School Department was bracing for a potentially rough morning after the union announced Wednesday night that Veolia had placed two labor leaders on leave. The leaders were not identified.

Before dawn broke, some drivers attempted to halt service again, barricading the exit to the Readville bus yard in Hyde Park. The attempt failed, much like a similar attempt did Wednesday morning.

“Other drivers ignored this attempt and pushed past it, and the attempt to incite was over almost before it began,” said Lee McGuire, another School Department spokesman. “We are happy that our drivers have yet again showed that they want to work and are committed to safe, on-time service.”

Tensions flared again mid-morning, as Veolia ordered one union official, Steve Kirschbaum, out of the Readville yard. Kirschbaum is chairman of the bus union’s grievance committee. A Veolia spokeswoman offered limited comment, noting it was a personnel issue.

“He needed to be off the property and the union was aware of that,” said Valerie Michael, a Veolia spokeswoman.

She declined to say whether Kirschbaum was one of the two union leaders that the company placed on leave, and said she hoped a resolution could be reached soon on the union issues.

Kirschbaum could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday, two Menino administration officials identified Kirschbaum as well as the union’s vice president, Steve Gillis, as the instigators of Tuesday’s strike. They also accused the two of intimidating and bullying other drivers into going along with the strike, even as the president of the union and representatives from its parent organization urged drivers to get back on the job.

The union’s contract forbids strikes, stoppages, and even slowdowns, and says participating individuals can be fired.

Alfred Gordon, a lawyer for the union, said officials are hoping the issues the drivers have been raising for months can be resolved soon. But he expressed concern about the company taking steps that could upset workers, such as placing employees on leave.

“The more action the company takes to incite members and leaders, the further we get from establishing labor harmony,” Gordon said. “The union has consistently told all drivers to continue doing their jobs and driving their students. . . . As long as the company is not taking steps to provoke action, I hope that the service will continue to happen.”

The union has raised myriad issues, which center on pay, benefits, and respect. In particular, the union is trying to persuade the company to stop using GPS data and a bus-routing software program to calculate how much time it should take drivers to do a route, then using that data to determine their “flat” pay rate. The union contends that the practice is forbidden under its contract. Drivers have said the computerized data tends to underestimate travel times in heavy traffic, ultimately shortchanging them on pay.

Similarly, the union is asking for restoration of what they call a contractually mandated daily school bus report, in which drivers record the time it takes to perform all their duties, such as cleaning up their buses at the end of a shift, which can be time consuming.

The union also has accused Veolia officials of refusing to meet with them on many occasions since the company assumed oversight of the city’s four bus yards in July. Consequently, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in August, outlining its grievances.

According to the School Department, the average salary and benefits package for a bus driver has increased over the last five years from $53,307 to $63,640.

The vast majority of buses arrived to school on time Thursday, with 91.7 percent dropping students off before the opening bell. But attendance on Thursday appeared to plummet, with schools reporting an 82.4-percent attendance rate. That’s about 12 percentage points lower than the average.

It remains unclear when the labor dispute will be resolved. They two sides did not formally meet Thursday, after gathering for several hours Wednesday at a Quincy hotel. Another negotiating session had not been scheduled as of Thursday night.

James Vaznis can be reached at James.Vaznis@ globe.com. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan. irons@globe.com
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