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School bus no-shows strand students, perplex parents

Boston opened the school year with missed bus routes.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Boston opened the school year with missed bus routes.

Dozens of Boston school buses failed to show up at stops Monday morning or were late, leaving hundreds of students stranded as panicked parents and school officials scrambled to find alternative transportation.

School officials were bracing for the possibility of more uncovered bus routes and late buses Tuesday, and announced that the MBTA would be free for students.

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“Families should prepare alternate arrangements to bring students to and from school Tuesday if necessary,’’ the school department said in a statement.

On Monday, the missing buses affected students who were heading to 15 charter schools and 11 special education programs that have already begun the new school year, in advance of the Sept. 4 opening day for most Boston public schools.

Thirteen of the approximately 120 routes were completely uncovered, leaving about 400 students without rides. Overall, 22 percent of buses were late, including 7 percent that were more than a half-hour late, according to the Boston School Department. Nearly 3,000 students were slated to ride the buses.

The disruption unfolded amid tense negotiations over a new contract for school bus drivers and raised concerns among parents and city leaders that the drivers could strike. Last fall, bus drivers staged a surprise one-day work stoppage that left thousands of students deserted at their bus stops.

“Our kids are trying to get to school and they are playing games,” said Devita McConnell, whose 12-year-old daughter attends the Brooke Charter School in Roslindale. “That’s a problem for me.”

McConnell and her daughter waited nearly a half-hour for a bus in Mattapan but ultimately gave up. McConnell instead drove her daughter and three other students to school before heading to work.

Although the school system managed to get all bus routes covered for the afternoon through a combination of regular bus drivers, supervisors, and backup drivers, officials remained worried about Tuesday morning’s runs. Even more schools are scheduled to be open, requiring 175 buses, but by Monday evening school officials had only 110 drivers lined up.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh at an afternoon press conference expressed concern about a possible strike before the opening of all schools next week. Walsh said he had heard some drivers are continuing to object to the termination of four union leaders last year after the work stoppage. “But that’s no reason not to pick kids up on the corner,’’ Walsh said. “That’s no reason to have a threat of a looming strike over our head.’’

Walsh said the city has been told that drivers would give 72 hours’ notice before any strike.

Signs emerged that there might be problems getting the buses on the road last week when hundreds of drivers refused to bid on routes for the upcoming school year — an annual process that essentially enables drivers with the most seniority to get priority on the routes they want, school officials said.

Instead the drivers “occupied” the main terminal, according to a Facebook page maintained by some bus driver union officials. The posting referred to the union’s “long struggle in self defense against Boston’s privatized school bus management’s concession, austerity, and union-busting program, including the illegal termination of 4 top elected union officers.”

Those four leaders remain on the union’s negotiating committee.

With few, if any, drivers bidding on the routes, Interim Superintendent John McDonough said the School Department and Transdev, the private contractor that oversees the bus yards and employs the drivers, worked out a fallback plan with the union that would enable drivers to be assigned routes Monday morning.

But not enough drivers showed up, and many of those who did were late, school officials said.

Dumond Louis, president of the bus drivers’ union, said the union did its best to make sure all routes were covered, calling about 600 drivers to report to the bus yards.

“We expected a lot of them to show up [in the] morning, but unfortunately not enough of them showed up,” said Louis, noting that he covered some of the routes himself.

Kate Lagreca, spokeswoman for Transdev, said the company was disappointed that the lack of bus drivers caused some students to be stranded and others delayed.

“We had an agreement with the union and assurances throughout the weekend that a sufficient number of drivers would report for duty this morning,” Lagreca said in a statement.

The school bus drivers’ union has become increasingly vocal during negotiations with Transdev to replace a contract that expired in June. Transdev, based in Lombard, Ill., recently changed its name from Veolia.

The union has objected to a variety of measures, including provisions that would mandate uniforms; allow the company to hold hearings on the status of employees who have been on sick leave for 12 months; and introduce language on absenteeism and tardiness that the union denounces as an attempt “to ramp up discipline,” according to a flyer the union is circulating online.

The contract talks became more contentious in June during a rally at a Dorchester bus yard when one of the fired leaders, Steve Kirschbaum, allegedly pushed a table against a Transdev manager as Kirschbaum tried to break into an office. Kirschbaum has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, breaking and entering, trespassing, and destruction of property.

McDonough called the disruption in bus service unacceptable.

“Shamefully, some of our students were left deserted,” he said. “I personally feel very disappointed.”

The impact at Brooke Charter School was significant, co-director Jon Clark said. Seventeen buses at its Roslindale, Mattapan, and East Boston campuses didn’t show up or were more than an hour late. Many parents ended up taking their children to school along with others who had been waiting for rides.

“We had a lot of parents upset and worried about their kids,” Clark said. “It was a huge safety issue. We are hopeful this will be resolved soon.”

Carolyn Kain, chairwoman of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said she was outraged that bus drivers would desert students at bus stops again or arrive severely late.

“It’s reprehensible they would pull something like this on little children and some of our most vulnerable children,” she said. “They should be ashamed.”

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.
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