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Boston school drivers appear ready to work

Turn out to bid on school bus routes; 2d day of delays plagues students

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Students at UP Academy Dorchester boarded buses Tuesday afternoon after routes in the morning were beset by consolidations and delays, with some buses arriving at schools more than an hour late. School officials are hoping that Wednesday morning’s bus runs will go more smoothly, and early indications point that way.

Boston school bus drivers, many of whom have been refusing requests to work, descended en masse on transportation headquarters Tuesday to finally sign up for bus routes, giving school officials hope that buses will run more smoothly for the first day of classes next week.

Nearly 300 drivers out of roughly 650 showed up at the Freeport yard in Dorchester to select which of the hundreds of routes they most prefer to drive — a three-day bidding process that was supposed to unfold last week, but did not because drivers refused to take part, school officials said.

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The collapse of the bidding process last week has created widespread problems this week in getting thousands of students to approximately three dozen charter schools and special education programs that started classes early.

Just hours before the new bidding process began Tuesday, school transportation officials had been scrambling to cover the morning’s routes, an effort that included last-minute consolidations of routes and tapping supervisors to get behind the wheel. Some buses ended up arriving at schools more than an hour late, sometimes with no students on board because families gave up waiting.

School officials are hoping that Wednesday morning’s bus runs will go more smoothly, and early indications pointed in that direction. As of 9:15 p.m., all but 15 of 181 routes had drivers lined up — far better than previous days.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh characterized the situation as “very fluid” and “frustrating,” but added, “I feel like we are in a better place now.”

He said union leadership has assured the School Department drivers have no plans to strike next week. But he added the city is talking about creating contingency plans just in case a problem surfaces.

“I don’t intend to let anyone shut down the school system next week because we don’t have transportation for kids,” Walsh said in an interview.

The bus drivers, who staged a surprise one-day work stoppage last year that left thousands of students stranded, have been working without a contract since June. Although they drive city-owned buses, they are employed by Transdev, an Illinois-based company that oversees the city’s four bus yards and previously went by the name Veolia.

Negotiations with Transdev have centered on a variety of proposals that union officials object to, such as mandating uniforms, introducing new language on absenteeism and tardiness, and allowing the company to hold hearings on the status of employees who have been on extended sick leave.

But the talks have also been marked by a quest among some union members to win back the jobs of four union leaders who were fired for orchestrating last year’s work stoppage and remain on the negotiating team.

Dumond Louis, president of the school bus drivers’ union, said he could not comment Tuesday because he was “ extremely busy” trying to help line up drivers for the runs. He also has been driving routes.

Michael O’Neill, chairman of the Boston School Committee, called the late buses “extremely frustrating.”

“We are thankful for the drivers honoring the call for duty, but there is dissension in the ranks of the union,” he said. “That’s an extremely difficult situation.”

In an effort to ensure a bus covered every stop Tuesday morning, transportation officials had to consolidate 175 routes into 140 to get 3,500 students to school. Yet at dawn they still confronted a bleak situation: Dozens of routes remained uncovered, and they struggled to secure additional drivers.

By 7 a.m., with 20 routes still uncovered, transportation officials began to frantically give supervisors driving assignments.

Overall, about a third of the students were assigned to buses that ultimately arrived late. Some buses completed their routes without picking up a single student, as frustrated families had given up waiting.

One of the eight buses destined to Boston Collegiate Charter School arrived late with no students on board, said Shannah Varon, the school’s executive director and chairwoman of the Boston Charter School Alliance.

“We are very disappointed and worried about our kids,” said Varon, noting that several other charter schools also had late buses. “It’s unfortunate that drivers are not showing up.”

She said parents have been going to great lengths to get their children to school on time. One mother on Monday, she said, brought her daughter to school by taxi, traveling from one end of Dorchester to the other, adding that “she must have spent a fortune.”

In spite of the problems, Varon said charter school leaders appreciated the School Department was “working around the clock” to fix the routes.

Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman, said both school and company officials are pleased progress is being made in getting routes covered this week and the bidding process opened Tuesday with a strong turnout. He said some union leaders also have been working tirelessly to remedy the problems.

But McGuire added, “What’s important is for parents to be able to count on the school buses every day and we are not there yet.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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