NEW YORK (AP) -- The New York City schools chancellor on Sunday accused school bus drivers of "jerking our kids around" by threatening to strike and forcing more than 152,000 students to find alternative ways to get to class.
"A strike would affect our most vulnerable students," Chancellor Dennis Walcott told a news conference at the Manhattan headquarters of the Department of Education.
The students who use the yellow school buses include 54,000 with disabilities, the chancellor said, and the "union should stop playing games, issuing threats of striking" -- but not saying which day it might happen.
"The union has said, ‘Well, maybe on Monday, well maybe Wednesday, maybe we'll do it, maybe we won't do it.' They're jerking our kids around," Walcott said. "We can't allow that to happen."
Officials of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union say they're trying to avert a strike. But as Walcott spoke inside, thousands of drivers and their supporters packed City Hall Park for a boisterous rally.
The city is looking to cut transportation costs and has put bus contracts up for bid. The union is decrying the lack of employee protections in the bids, saying many current drivers could suddenly lose their jobs once their contracts are up in June.
A decision on the new bids is to be made in May, city officials said.
"They're trying to replace us with inexperienced drivers working for new companies for minimum wage," said Samuel Rivera, 38, who's been driving for almost a dozen years.
In case of a strike, students will be given MetroCards to get to school. If they're younger, a parent or guardian also would get a MetroCard to escort a child. And in the case of special needs children, families would get reimbursed for non-public transportation.
The union argues that child safety is at stake if less experienced drivers are hired for lower wages.
Walcott countered that bids include stringent safety requirements for the drivers -- as well as savings that could be used for educational purposes. He said New York has not used significant competitive bidding for new yellow bus contracts since 1979, resulting in a $6,900 annual busing cost per child -- compared with $3,124 in Los Angeles.
A strike would impact all students who use the buses, including parochial and private schools.
New York City has 1.1 million students in its school district.