the long haul

School bus drivers say they will strike starting on Wednesday

The city school bus drivers union announced today that its members would strike starting Wednesday over the city's plan for new contracts with bus companies.

After more than a year of strike threats, city school bus drivers will walk off the job on Wednesday, their union announced today.

The work stoppage means that more than 150,000 students — including many with severe disabilities — will have to find their own way to school. All students affected by the strike who can get to school using public transportation will receive Metrocards, and the city will reimburse families who must drive or hire cars for the commute to and from school.

Still, city officials say they expect that the burden of providing transportation will lead at least some families to keep their children home.

The strike also means that the city’s streets will be clear of yellow buses for the first time since 1979, when the city ended a three-month strike by extending new protections for drivers.

The strike comes as the city prepares to seek contracts with bus companies in an effort to cut student transportation costs, which are the highest in the country. The drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1181, wants a guarantee that current employees won’t lose their jobs even if the companies they work for do not win a new contract. But the city, citing a 2011 legal ruling, says it cannot make such a promise.

“Have you ever heard of a strike where one side is demanding something that the courts have ruled illegal?” Mayor Bloomberg said today during a press conference just before the union officially declared the strike. “It is just meshugana, as we say in Gaelic.”

Labor leaders from across the city state are arguing that the law isn’t as fixed as Bloomberg has portrayed it. “This is a completely avoidable situation that the city could solve in an instant if it only had the willingness to do so,” New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez said in a statement.

But for the union to reconsider the strike plan before Wednesday, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said, the city’s change in position “would have to be meaningful.” He said the strike would last “until the mayor helps us.”

But Bloomberg said city officials were prepared to dig in for the long haul.

“They should not be lulled into thinking we’ll change our minds,” Bloomberg said. “We will go and ask for bids, and in the meantime we’ll find ways to deal with [the strike] that are not unsatisfactory.”

The city’s stop-gap solutions include giving Metrocards to students who currently ride yellow buses; offering Metrocards to the parents on the youngest bus riders; having additional safety officers direct traffic at some schools; reimbursing transportation costs for families that front the bill; and warning the Metropolitan Transit Authority to expect extra congestion on subways and city buses.

Even so, the Department of Education is anticipating that at least some students who ride yellow buses won’t be able to get to school easily starting on Wednesday. Students who are less than two hours late to school won’t be marked tardy, and absences because of transportation issues won’t count against students’ academic records.

Some schools have asked teachers to prepare work for students to complete at home. At Brooklyn’s P.S. 231, a District 75 school for students with severe disabilities where virtually all students take yellow buses, teachers were told earlier this month to compile 10 days’ worth of assignments that students could take home in case of a strike, one teacher reported on Twitter.

“A lot of parents won’t be able to get their kids to school, or will miss a lot of work,” said Susan Valdés-Dapena, a Queens parent whose son rides a bus to his private school on Roosevelt Island, which he attends using state funding for students with disabilities.

But Valdés-Dapena said she was supporting the bus drivers anyway because her son, Patrick, has benefited from having experienced bus drivers.

Patrick Valdés-Dapena said he had a different reason for backing the strike. “I am a little bit excited about the strike,” he said. “It sort of seems like we’re not going to have school.” (His mother disagreed: She said she would drive Patrick to school.)

The bus drivers strike isn’t the only labor issue the Department of Education is juggling right now. The strike is set to start the day before a state teacher evaluation deadline that has had the city locked in negotiations with the teachers union, as well.

“We’re working on them simultaneously,” Lauren Passalacqua, a City Hall spokeswoman, said about the teacher evaluation and bus contract negotiations. “Both issues are priorities and it’s a balancing act.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.