when the iron is hot

At bus driver strike hearing, Walcott bats away council criticism

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions from Robert Jackson during a City Council hearing on the school bus strike.

Agitated City Council members spent more than two hours today grilling Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the city’s refusal to restore job protections for school bus drivers or intervene in their nearly monthlong strike.

The hearing took place more than three weeks into the strike on a day when many families’ tenuous transportation plans were complicated by the start of a snowstorm. Attendance in schools for students with disabilities, which have been hardest-hit by the strike, fell from 76 percent on Thursday to just 50 percent today.

Maria Uruchima, whose nightmarish commute includes 8 buses and 4 trains, said her son wasn’t feeling well, “so I just kept him home because it’s going to be crazy out anyways.”

Even before the inclement weather, at least 2,500 students who attend schools in District 75, which serve special education students with the highest needs, “were still home,” Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children, said in her prepared remarks. For students that made it to school, Moroff said parents sacrificed hours of their work days to get them there and many students arrived late anyway. 

The plight of students and families came up occasionally, but the hearing centered more on the ongoing labor dispute between Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the city and the School Bus Coalition, which was absent. The stated purpose of the hearing was “the costs of student transportation,” but that got short shrift as well.

In his testimony, Walcott didn’t say much about transportation costs that the city faced, something that irked council officials who organized the hearing. The one dollar figure that Walcott did cite was the $95 million that the city expected to save from new five-year contracts for prekindergarten busing. Those contracts did not include seniority protections for bus drivers.

School transportation will cost the city $1.1 billion this year, according to the Comptroller’s office, and increase to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to the council, which had asked the education department to come with a prepared breakdown of how that money was spent.

The costs were relevant, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said in his opening remarks, because the city has often cited the high costs of bus transportation for why it needs to seek new and cheaper contracts.

“We’ve all read and heard lots of heated rhetoric and half-truths, claims and counterclaims about the cost of busing in New York City, and now it’s time for a reality check,” Jackson said. More than half of that amount is reimbursed by the state, a fact that Jackson said was not mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg during his many press conferences on the issue.

Later in the questioning, officials confirmed some the per-pupil cost breakdowns. Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support Services said the city spent an average of $6,900 per pupil on transportation —   $2800 on general education students and $12,800 on students with special needs.

Jackson led the charge of criticism of Walcott. He accused Walcott of misleading the council on the city’s true intentions behind the labor conflict, suggesting he was either ignorant of the issues facing students, families and bus drivers in the strike, or he’s more nefarious than that.

“You’re like an ostrich with his head in the sand not willing to come out and deal with reality,” said Jackson, nearing the end of Walcott’s lengthy testimony, which once escalated into a tense exchange with a confrontational council member.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s about money, chancellor,” Jackson added. “I’m wondering whether or not this is about the Bloomberg Administration willing to attempt to try to break the back of the union.”

In response, the overflow room about 20 feet down the hallway, packed mostly with striking bus drivers, erupted in applause.

Walcott disputed the claim, saying that the city was getting rid of seniority-based job protections for its upcoming contract bidding process because they were legally obligated and to save money.

“We are not trying to break the union, as I’ve said over and over again,” Walcott said. “The union will still be in place even with the new bids.”

Walcott was defensive but remained even-tempered for most the of hearing. The exception came in response to questioning from Councilwoman Letitia James, a candidate for Public Advocate who repeatedly asked — and interrupted to answer herself — Walcott about the city’s interpretation of a 2011 court decision that he said justifies withholding job protections.

“You can come to the panel meetings and act out,” Walcott said, referring to the contentious Panel for Educational Policy meetings. “I’m not going to take it here.”

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news