Metro

Drivers union blasts new school bus plan

Students from the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School load school buses on August 29, 2013.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Students from the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School load school buses on August 29, 2013.

The Boston school bus drivers union Tuesday blasted a cost-cutting plan from the city’s public school system that would consolidate scores of bus routes and lay off dozens of drivers, predicting that the move will lead to chaos in the fall with many buses arriving at schools late.

“It’s crazy,” said Andre Francois, the bus union’s president, in an interview. “It’s not a sound plan. This might be the biggest mistake that this mayor will make.”

Francois said the bus drivers union is prepared to fight the cuts every step of the way, saying “we’re not going to lay down and take this.”

Advertisement

The drivers union weighed in one day after the school system announced its plan, which officials said could save between $3 million and $5 million. Under the changes, many students who board the buses could end up with commutes that are longer or shorter than the ones they had last school year, and could be assigned to different bus stops.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, said the school system is trying to minimize layoffs as much as possible.

“I understand they have concerns, and we intend to work with them,” Hanlon said.

The school system is making the changes via a computer model developed by a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology that aims to generate routes that are more efficient than those that can be crafted by the human eye and drivers’ experience on the roads — the longtime method used by the school system.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh threw his support behind the plan Tuesday.

Advertisement

“Mayor Walsh has long been committed to finding greater efficiencies and cost savings in school transportation,” said Nicole Caravella, a spokeswoman. “With FY18 having the highest school budget in Boston history, it’s the mayor’s priority that as many dollars as possible go directly to students and their education.”

The new plan comes a month after several city councilors were sharply critical of the school system’s high spending on transportation when it approved the school system’s $1 billion budget for next year. Transportation costs account for about $116 million in that spending plan.

Councilor Mark Ciommo, who chairs the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said he welcomed the plan.

“Any way we can create efficiencies, save time, and reduce pollution with fewer buses in the morning and afternoon is a cost benefit, an environmental benefit, and a quality of life benefit,” Ciommo said. “All those dollars can go back in the classroom.”

But Councilor Tito Jackson, who is challenging Walsh in his reelection bid, questioned the timing of the school system’s announcement, coming after the City Council budget deliberations and while many families are away on vacation.

Advertisement

“Something of this importance and magnitude should have been disclosed much earlier in the school year so that everyone would have an understanding of the plan and what it means,” Jackson said. “This is BPS, again, lacking transparency and accountability.”

‘Any way we can create efficiencies, save time, and reduce pollution . . . is a cost benefit, an environmental benefit, and a quality of life benefit.’

The school system selected the MIT model after holding a hackathon-like event in April, and has been working with the researchers to refine the approach and integrate it into its current routing system, Hanlon said.

Students on the new routes, he said, will spend on average 24 minutes traveling to school in the mornings and 25 minutes in the afternoon, according to information MIT provided. He could not say how those rates compared with the past school year.

This is the school system’s second attempt in recent years to take a high-tech approach to routing. Its previous effort in 2011 — when it adopted software to replace hand-drawn routes — resulted in school buses running chronically late well into the fall, drawing the ire of parents, teachers, and then-mayor Thomas M. Menino.

That experience is leading some parents and others to greet the new MIT model with caution.

‘Maybe it will work out beautifully, but based on past experience I’m not sure,” said Kevin Murray, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grassroots parent organization in Boston.

Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog organization funded by nonprofits and businesses, said, “It’s a worthwhile initiative, given the extremely expensive transportation system the school department has now, but [the school system] is going to need time to test the plan in real traffic to be sure it is an improvement.”

Francois predicted the MIT model, like the previous effort in 2011, will result in a slew of late buses, and he complained that the district did not seek input from the bus drivers union as it developed the new routes. He said school officials “told us: ‘It won’t affect you right now. We are looking at it in the long run. We are just entertaining ideas.’”

Hanlon said the school system intends to work with drivers in the coming weeks to perfect the routes, after they do dry runs to see if there are any unforeseen obstacles that need to be addressed.

“We are interested in being close partners with the union on this,” he said.

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