New York City school buses are rolling again after a monthlong strike by bus drivers and matrons. Workers were back on the job transporting approximately 150,000 students in the nation's largest school district.
"We're happy to be back," said driver Philip Pan, 57, whose dashboard was adorned with a hand-drawn "Welcome back" card, complete with a picture of a bus.
"We're like a family. We're really close with these kids," said Pan, who's been on the job eight years.
But not all parents were happy. Sadia Awan, 34, ended up taking her seventh-grader to school herself because their bus didn't come.
Her son, Hurrera, has a prosthetic leg. They waited about 90 minutes before giving up.
"I was calling, calling, calling, waiting, waiting, waiting. Nothing," the angry mother said outside Middle School 88 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "If he's late, the school's going to go after his academics. It's not good for me, it's not good for him."
Awan also said she had struggled with the online reimbursement process to cover her son's taxis during the strike. They cost $20 a day. "That's rent money," she said.
"I understand the drivers need security but they shouldn't have done it to the kids," said Awan.
The city spent roughly $20.6 million in transit cards, taxis and gas mileage to get tens of thousands of stranded students to school during the strike, but some still didn't get there at all, schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Monday.
The 7,700 or so bus routes resumed Wednesday following mid-winter recess, but routes for non-public schools started Tuesday, Walcott said. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 ended its walkout on Friday evening after union leaders were assured by prospective New York City mayoral candidates that their concerns about job protection would be heard after this year's election. They went on strike Jan. 16.
"We are glad to welcome back the local 1181 drivers and matrons," Walcott said. "Their children have missed them ... and we need them back so our children can get to school."
Walcott estimated the city saved $80 million because it wasn't paying bus companies during the strike, which started over job protection issues. Local 1181 of the ATU wanted the city to include protections for current employees in future contracts with bus companies, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said a court ruling prohibited the city from doing so.
"We may have some bumps with parents treating this like the first day of school. Some buses may be late. But the main union was on strike and their buses will now be back. I'm asking all parents to submit their reimbursements so we can pay them within the next 30 days. All parents should return their MetroCards, " said Walcott during Good Day NY on Wednesday.
Just 152,000 of New York City's 1.1 million public schoolchildren ride yellow school buses, but many are disabled or have no other easy way to get to school. The city provided transit cards for students and is reimbursing parents for taxi fares and gas mileage needed to get students to school during the strike. But Walcott said it was a struggle for many parents, and some students didn't make it to class.
Some 800 special education students across the city were re-routed, and parents should check with their schools to determine when the students would be back on regular routes, Walcott said.
"Wednesday will be a good day for our students, they will be able to get back to school riding on yellow buses," he said.
The school bus strike was the first in the city since 1979. About 5,000 of the city's 7,700 routes were affected.
The cost of busing students has risen from $100 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today, prompting Bloomberg to insist the city must seek new bus contracts to cut costs. Walcott said so far there have been about 60 different contract bids and city officials are going through them and looking for the best, most cost-effective solutions.
Union leaders were heartened by a letter written by five Democrats vying for the nomination to succeed Bloomberg as mayor next year asking them to return to work. The candidates — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Councilman Sal Albanese — said that if elected, they will revisit the job security issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.