Six school buses at the First Student bus yard in Providence were damaged by fire Thursday night. The police were looking into the cause, but the sight of burning buses in the night certainly put an exclamation point on the disgrace of the lengthy bus strike in the capital city.
School bus drivers and monitors, on strike since Sept. 27, have been in a bitter labor dispute with First Student. On Thursday night, firefighters arrived to find one of the company's buses fully engulfed in flames. The fire spread to several other buses before it could be extinguished.
Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Pare called the blaze suspicious and said "an active criminal investigation" is underway. The police are reviewing security camera data and conducting forensic analysis.
"Whoever may have been responsible, we will seek that person and hold them responsible for this fire," Commissioner Pare vowed.
The good people in the community stand behind Mr. Pare's effort 100 percent.
The strike itself, which was tentatively settled Friday, offered one more reminder of how dysfunctional the education system in Rhode Island can be. While adults grapple over money, students -- who are supposed to be the reason for the entire system — are often treated as an afterthought. It is outrageous that they can be held hostage to this kind of financial brinkmanship in the midst of a school year.
Gov. Gina Raimondo offered an interesting idea on Friday: perhaps school bus drivers, like teachers and police officers, should not be permitted to strike.
More than 9,000 students were affected. The stress on working families getting children to and from school was enormous. Students already trapped in struggling and underperforming schools did not need extra impediments to learning.
It is fortunate that the vast majority of students were able to get to school despite the strike. Dedicated volunteers with the Walking School Bus group admirably helped elementary students to their schools.
Unfortunately, special-needs students seemed to be the most greatly affected, since they require extra assistance to get to school. As a result, many of them were not being served.
The issue seemed to come down to whether the First Student company would put its union employees into a Teamsters' pension system. The union is trying to shore up the system and needs new contributors. But First Student voiced fears it would be financially ruinous to fund guaranteed pensions. That is why almost every business in the private sector has shifted away from them.
The company offered $29 an hour to senior bus drivers, and improved its offers for guaranteed hours and other benefits. It offered union members a choice of a company 401(k) fund or one managed by the Teamsters. But it had refused to budge on guaranteed pensions.
Politicians are wary of putting pressure on unions, who can either be supportive or hurtful in political campaigns. But enough is enough.
Thursday night's ugly events emphasized that this squalid episode must not only be ended -- it must not be repeated.