As the Boston school bus drivers contract was set to expire Friday, problems with school buses arriving late or not showing up at their destinations persisted, exasperating city officials, school leaders, and families.
“It’s irresponsible, negligent, and criminal to leave children at bus stops,” said City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who chairs the Council’s Education Committee. “When we are not picking up kids at bus stops or dropping them off at wrong stops, that is a safety issue. If we can’t keep them safe getting to and from school, we have failed.”
The problem is affecting more than a dozen schools — mostly independent charters — that began classes earlier than the city-run school system, where opening day is scheduled for Sept. 6. It remains unclear if the shortage of drivers is due to contract negotiations or is coincidental.
Since at least Tuesday, the school system has been grappling with an unexpected number of driver absences, causing the school system and Transdev, the contractor that oversees running the bus fleet, to make last-minute calls for replacement drivers. Yet even though the school system purports to have nearly 750 bus drivers, officials failed to get all the routes covered each day.
On Friday morning, Brooke Charter School got hit again by the busing fiasco: One bus didn’t show up at its Roslindale campus, while three other buses arrived between one hour and two hours and 15 minutes late to its East Boston campus. Jon Clark, the school’s co-director, said he is most bothered by the buses that never show up, because many students wait at bus stops without their parents, who are already at work.
“It’s a safety issue and a big one,” he said.
The school system, which has become increasingly secretive about the bus problems as the week progressed, refused to say how many unexcused bus driver absences it had on Thursday and Friday, how many routes went uncovered, and how late the buses ran. Earlier in the week, officials said they had 43 uncovered bus routes on Tuesday and 20 on Wednesday due to unexpected driver absences, and that buses ran as much as two hours late.
Interim Superintendent Laura Perille declined an interview request Friday and instead issued a statement.
“The hardworking staff of the Boston Public Schools Transportation Department are doing everything possible to ensure all students in Boston are getting to and from school on time and in a safe manner,” Perille said. “I share the public’s concern that we continue to experience ongoing delays for some routes, but we are confident that improvements are forthcoming. We continue to work with our transportation vendor, Transdev, and union counterparts to improve service in time for the first day of school for BPS.”
A day earlier Mayor Martin J. Walsh publicly apologized to families for the hardships, while voicing his own frustrations.
The bus drivers union, which is part of the United Steelworkers, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. The group initially authorized a strike vote in June when its contract was originally set to expire. The union subsequently reached a two-month extension of its agreement, which includes a provision that calls for a 48-hour notice of any strike.
The union is fighting for a cost-of-living increase, affordable health care, disability coverage, other benefits, and well-trained bus monitors for every bus, while it opposes such bargaining proposals as outsourcing work and reducing allotted time for daily bus inspections, according to a flier the union released this week.
Thabiti Brown, head of school at Codman Academy in Dorchester, said Friday bus service has improved at his charter school. He said every bus showed up in the morning and in the afternoon Friday, a sharp contrast to Tuesday when four out of six buses never arrived.
“I’m glad they made some strong positive moves,” he said.
City Councilor Kim Janey said she won’t be satisfied until all buses show up at their destinations and no student is left behind.
“I think it is deeply troubling school buses have been showing up late or not at all and putting the education of our students in jeopardy,” said Janey, who represents Roxbury and parts of Dorchester, the South End, and the Fenway. “If the problem isn’t rectified, the problem will only get worse. I would like to see some urgency in getting the issues resolved.”