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Local school bus operators allege MPP John Wilkinson abandoned rural routes

by Mike Robinson

ARTHUR - It’s not just about Wellington County anymore.

Something called an RFP is sweeping across the province, leaving independent school bus operators out of business and frustrating those still trying to keep their local businesses alive.

Independent school operators and supporters from across the region were in Arthur on May 27 to find out why the province has allowed the RFP (Request for Proposals) process to continue - and expand. The provincial government implemented the RFP process in 2007 with the Ministry of Education to regulate and cut costs in the school bus industry.

Wellington-Dufferin Student Transportation Services (WDSTS),  the consortium in charge of school buses for the two counties, was one of three in the province selected in 2009 to take part in a pilot project that ultimately decimated the businesses of Cook’s School Bus Lines of Mount Forest, Epoch’s Garage of Kenilworth, Doug Akitt Bus Lines of Belwood and Langdon Bus Lines of Alma.

Between them, the family-owned businesses had been operating local school bus routes for over 200 years. But by the end of June, they may all be out of business for good.

Similar results came in northern Ontario in March, where as many as 12 businesses were wiped out over night by the same process, which drew immediate support from their local MPPs. As a result of that support, the new procurement process has come under fire.

The NDP and Progressive Conservatives have called for a moratorium on school bus tendering until a review of the process can be completed.

Ruth Anne Staples, of Epoch’s Garage in Kenilworth, was one of dozens of people at the Arthur gathering.

During a telephone interview with the Wellington Advertiser, Staples estimated there were 21 buses and over 40 supporters lining the main street near the Post Time Restaurant. The busses represented 12 bus operators.

Staples believed the meeting with Perth-Wellington MPP John Wilkinson went well, as he met with protestors before a Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Company officials asked Wilkinson and the province “to step up to the plate” and undertake a review of this process. Staples said there is a reason behind their move.

Wellington County and the Upper Grand District School Board was a pilot project for the RFP, “But this is a bigger issue now because it is affecting other areas of the province,” Staples said.

And she added, the results are the same in area after area.

“It’s too late for us now, but it’s not too late for other small local companies to remain as viable operations.” She said signs held by those at the protest stated the RFP process equals less competition, which equals a monopoly, which will equal higher prices in the long run.

Others placards stated Wilkinson has forgotten his rural roots and rural [school bus] routes, and the Liberal government is no friend to small business.

Staples said overall, the feeling at the event was very supportive, and some members of the Arthur Chamber of Commerce came out to offer support.

Karen Cameron, of the Independent School Bus Operators Association, said she was pleased with the industry turnout at the day’s event at 7am.

“This remains very much an issue,” she said in a telephone interview with the Advertiser.

She added independent school bus operators are desperate to get the attention of the provincial government.

She said while Wilkinson listened to their concerns, that was more time than they had been able to get to that point. She was thrilled with the 40 to 50 people attending.

One thing she stressed, “is that Wilkinson confirmed the school board has accountability.”

Cameron said the school board and its trustees could have raised the alarm bells as the impact of the move became apparent.

Cameron said many of the businesses being affected started in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and are operated today by the third and fourth generations of the family.

She contended rural MPPs like Wilkinson have failed their constituents and the bus industry.

“A year ago, when four local bus companies were decimated by a one-size-fits-all procurement process, Wilkinson should have been the first to raise the alarm bells.”

Cameron said if he had listened to his constituents, he would have learned the industry already was competitive; “it just looks different when you only have one customer - the government.

“It’s one thing to be put out of business by your competition. It is entirely another to be put out of business by your own government. And that is what has happened to as many as 18 school bus companies in Ontario.”

She explained, “The nature of student transportation is very different from other services the government purchases. We don’t just work for the government behind the scenes in a cubicle. Our companies and the drivers we are trusted to hire, are a daily part of families’ lives across Ontario ...

“Sadly, in boards where the RFP approach has already been used, there has been a mass exodus of experienced drivers who do not want to stick around and work in an environment where the lowest-cost bidder wins all of the routes.”

Lesa McDougall, of Cook’s School Bus Lines, noted, “Our MPP should have been concerned when four rural businesses were wiped out overnight. He sacrificed our businesses for political expediency and the illusion of transparency and accountability.”

In a later interview, Wellington North Mayor Ray Tout said the protesters “have a very valid point. I’m behind it in the respect that what has really happened is that the province has given money to the school boards.

“It’s the elected school board officials that have gone for this volunteer RFP program.

“However, it’s a strong concern to me when local school bus drivers, local operators, local investors who buy fuel locally, employees who spend their money locally  - to take that money to a contract out of our community, that’s a strong concern to me.”

Tout concluded, “I’d like to keep the employment, the business, and everything local. And we’re going to lose that if this continues to go through.”

 

 

June 03, 2011

 
 

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