It’s an unhappy tradition on the first day of school in Boston — across the city, parents hold their breath and hope that the school bus actually arrives to pick up their children.
This year, the company that operates the city’s fleet of yellow school buses had trouble hiring enough drivers, reflecting a nationwide shortage, and as recently as last week the city was warning of possible delays or missed routes. As of Wednesday afternoon, though, the district says it has every route covered.
But that’s only if as many drivers show up at the city’s bus yards as expected — which, at least in Boston, is never a sure thing. By an odd coincidence, driver absenteeism has been known to spike when the city’s contract with the union representing drivers is up for negotiation (the sides signed a short-term extension on Tuesday).
A Boston Public Schools spokesman said the district will have staff at the bus yards starting at 4 a.m. Thursday to monitor for signs of shortfalls. If not enough drivers show up to cover every route, parents should get a message from the district. Those with smartphones can also track buses on the city’s school bus app.
A labor shortage may have sparked the particular challenge this year, but it seems like it’s always something causing drama in a system that 25,000 students rely on to get to school. In recent years, parents have had to deal with missing and delayed buses, an illegal strike, and puzzling schedules, among other snafus.
For a city that spends about $130 million on bus transportation — around a tenth of the school budget, and up from $95 million six years ago — that’s not acceptable. It’s no wonder that when the city agreed to a set of educational reforms last year to stave off a state takeover of the district, the agreement included better transportation on the list, and specifically a requirement to “increase the on-time arrival of school buses on the first day of school.”
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the district was making progress on on-time performance before the pandemic. But the root problem is the failure, over many years, of city and district leaders to exercise strong management over the bus system.
One of the problems is that the union representing drivers has repeatedly shown a willingness to use absenteeism as a bargaining strategy, and the city and bus contractor have been unwilling to hold drivers accountable when they do. In 2013, when the union organized an illegal wildcat strike, leaving schoolkids on the curb, several of the leaders were fired, only to be voluntarily rehired. No wonder the district has to worry now that drivers might not show up Thursday. One way to bring some certainty to the first day of school in the future would be to establish a precedent that drivers might lose their jobs if they engage in illegal labor actions. The district could also seek longer contracts so that it doesn’t find itself mired in negotiations so often.
Hopefully, Thursday will go off without a hitch. But the fact that it’s even an open question — that almost every year, parents have to cross their fingers and pray the bus shows up on the first day of school — shouldn’t be accepted as the status quo. Anticipating a crisis, the candidates for mayor have been quick to accuse Acting Mayor Kim Janey of poor planning. By Friday, the city will know whether those criticisms are warranted. But what parents should demand from would-be mayors is a plan to end these yearly soap operas — permanently.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.