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Boston secures measures to crack down on school bus driver absences in new union contract deal

Boston, MADavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As part of an effort to ensure all of Boston’s school buses are on the road daily, drivers will no longer be able to take off time — without advanced warning or permission — under a new contract between their union and the school system’s transportation vendor.

A generous provision in the old contract allowed drivers who didn’t show up — without notifying their supervisors — to remove blemishes on their attendance records by reclassifying up to three no-show days retroactively as “personal time off.” Drivers could do this even if their decision to skip work left students without a bus that day.

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The new deal no longer allows drivers to use personal time off in that way and instead drivers could face disciplinary action.

The change is one of several the transportation contractor, Transdev, secured in the new union contract, which was negotiated in partnership with Boston Public Schools and Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration. The drivers union ratified the deal Tuesday night.

Other changes that could result in more buses picking up students punctually include a requirement that drivers must report to work before the first day of school to practice their routes. That move not only aims to ensure drivers will have a better handle on their routes before school starts, but also lets Transdev know if any drivers won’t be returning to work, which has been an issue.

“This agreement has been a long time coming,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. “First and foremost, it is centered on BPS students and our responsibility to transport them safely and reliably to and from school. The new contract will help us do that more effectively with better accountability provisions that will help us achieve improved on-time performance.”

The deal comes as Boston Public Schools faces pressure from the state to improve the punctuality of its bus fleet, which has been hamstrung by tardy and no-show buses that test the patience of students, parents, teachers, administrators, the mayor, and city councilors.

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The state edict is part of a broader two-year-old partnership between BPS and the state to bolster school performance and school district operations. However, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley expressed deep concerns about the lack of progress in addressing transportation issues and a host of other problems in the district, following a state review of BPS released earlier this week.

Many families, students, and elected officials, including Wu, are increasingly worried the state will move to take over the system, and that prospect of receivership apparently factored into the final days of negotiating the bus union contract deal.

The union leadership told its members in advance of Tuesday’s vote that Wu expressed concerns about a state takeover during a meeting they had with her on May 16.

“She expressed her deep concern to conclude our contract, given the current, imminent threat of a state takeover [receivership] of Boston Public schools, a move which could override her authority and vacate union contracts,” the union said in a flier before the vote. “Without a concluded agreement, drivers would be in serious jeopardy — contract rights, economics, retro pay, etc.”

Talks with the city’s chief negotiator, Transdev, and BPS moved forward after the brief union meeting with Wu and two days later after another negotiating session a deal materialized.

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The long-awaited agreement was struck nearly a year after the former contract expired and about two months after the union rejected what was supposed to be a “last, best, and final offer.” The bus drivers union could not be reached for comment.

The drivers union also won a number of concessions, including pay raises. Under the first year of the three-year contract, which is retroactive to last July, drivers would receive a 5.1 percent raise, bringing the hourly rate to $28; a 2 percent raise for each of the past two years, which ultimately bumps up the hourly rate to $29.13. Drivers are paid time and a half for overtime.

Those higher wages should help Transdev to hire drivers more quickly as the transportation industry nationwide grapples with an acute labor shortage, which has exacerbated problems for Boston in getting its buses operational.

Many other provisions in the new contract, which were carried over from the old one, will still create hurdles in getting buses on the road.

For instance, when drivers are absent, their routes need to go out to bid to a pool of stand-by drivers in order to get the routes covered. However, a driver shortage has still frequently left routes uncovered. In January, more than 1,100 morning routes had no drivers.

Mary Tamer, a former School Committee member and the Massachusetts director of Democrats for Education Reform, said the changes to the contract sound encouraging but “we don’t have enough information yet to predict how this [contract] will improve on-time performance.”

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James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.