Haverhill Schools, Facing Bus Driver Layoffs, Agree to Pay Through Next Week; Also Seek Union Talk Delay

Mayor James J. Fiorentini and Superintendent Margaret Marotta rode a Bradford Elementary school bus Sept. 5, 2019. (Courtesy photograph.)

Haverhill will continue to pay for school bus service through the end of the month after the outside transportation company said it would otherwise be forced to lay off drivers beginning today.

In a close vote, requiring Mayor James J. Fiorentini to cast the tie-breaker, Haverhill School Committee members agreed to pay NRT Bus after learning of the threat. Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti, citing a difficulty in recruiting drivers, suggested the short-term action. He was supported by members Gail M. Sullivan and Richard J. Rosa. Opposing the payment were members Toni Sapienza-Donais, Maura Ryan-Ciardiello and Scott W. Wood Jr. Wood explained his reason.

“The strategy of Mr. (John) McCarthy, it seems very similar. He always has a very threatening style. I’m certainly not someone who is going to cower down to him. I don’t like that style, never liked his style and I’m concerned about spending taxpayers’ dollars on services that are not happening,” Wood said.

Assistant Superintendent Michael J. Pfifferling reported NRT, formerly known as North Reading Transportation, has proposed the city continue paying 75% of the contract in order to cover workers’ salaries and benefits even as buses remain idle because of the COVID-19 crisis. Fiorentini said he doesn’t know if 75% is the correct number, noting he has “a big problem paying them a profit margin for work they’re not doing.”

A motion by Rosa to likewise pay other drivers—such as taxi drivers who also provide transportation for certain students—failed to advance.

For Haverhill teachers, work continues. Likewise, food service personnel are still working daily, providing 900 breakfasts and lunches for students who need them. In other areas, such as custodial, however, the schools have been working with skeleton crews, coming in as needed. The School Committee, however, is in the midst of contract renewal negotiations with educational support professionals and members said they’re uncertain how much the city will be able to pay with plummeting tax and fee income during the crisis.

Fiorentini suggested delaying contract talks until at least May provided such an action doesn’t constitute an unfair labor practice under the law. The mayor said he and Finance Director Charles Benevento do not yet know what aid the city will receive and how deeply it will have to raid its rainy-day fund. The mayor said there is a possibility the city will switch to one-twelfth budgeting until it has a better idea of its financial condition.

The School Committee meeting, broadcast over 97.9 WHAV FM, took place entirely online.

John Lee Grant contributed to this report.

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