School bus operators remain frustrated by lack of movement by province

While local school bus operators are quick to thank Premier Dalton McGuinty for recognizing a crisis in student transportation – they also want something done to fix the problem.

So what was supposed to be a community barbecue on Aug. 4 by Perth-Wellington MPP John Wilkinson turned into a protest march, as several buses parked across the road from the local Sportsplex and protesters with placards marched around the pavilion where the barbecue was held.

The intent was to bring a message home to Wilkinson and the Upper Grand District School Board.

“People are more than welcome to come [to the barbecue]. This is a democracy and if people want to protest, that’s great; it is their right,” Wilkinson said. “There are people around the world who would literally die for the right to be able to engage in peaceful protest and I think we should celebrate that as Canadians we are as free as we are.”

He added, “People can come out, make their point … and have a hamburger too … that’s pretty Canadian.”

While there, protesters also spoke to school board trustee Bruce Schieck.

However, Schieck was unwilling to go on record with that conversation or make further public comments on the issue, because of what he described as school board communication protocols. Those protocols restrict elected trustees from commenting on board issues.

He said comments on behalf of the board need to come from either the board chairman, the communications officer or the director of education.

Schieck described himself as the only trustee in the northern part of Wellington, from Elora to Holstein (the Wellington Heights school attendance area extends into Grey County but he is not elected there).

At the same time, Schieck had no qualms about making comments to Wilkinson or to school bus operators.

The discussion between bus company representative Lesa McDougall, Schieck and Wilkinson leaned towards who was responsible for the decision to move into a pilot project that devastated local school bus operators and why no action was taken when officials discovered the impact of that decision.

McDougall said, “It seems the school boards are saying this is a provincial directive, while the province is saying there was no directive and that this is a trustee decision – and we’re caught in the middle.”

Initially, the Upper Grand board was asked to participate in a pilot project that affected 25% of its routes. Later it moved to a full request for proposals (RFPs) for all of its routes.

McDougall said any time questions were raised, trustees were told this is a fait accomplis and trustee approval was not needed.

For the board, the impact was $3-million in additional funding. Initially, it gained $900,000 after implementing the pilot project, then another $2-million when the remaining routes went to the RFP process.

But there was a cost.

Hardest hit were the smaller local bus operators in the northern part of the riding that lost almost all of their bus routes.

McDougall said, “We asked [superintendent of finance] Janice Wright why was trustee approval not part of the process, with no discussion, no motion, and the written response was that this was a ministry mandate; trustee approval was not sought.”

Wright is also the staff member who represents the school board on the transportation consortium.

Wilkinson said the last time independent school bus operators spoke to him in Arthur, they asked for a moratorium. Now, one is in place, he said.

He added the government is in the process of setting up a task force to look into what is happening.

“There are people here who have lost their routes as a result of the competitive process which was held through the school board consortium. It was open and transparent and they did not win those contracts.

“I know that’s very difficult for those companies. But the decision on school buses is the responsibility of the school boards.”

At the same time, there are allegations trustees never voted on the matter in the first place.

When asked how there could be accountability in that type of process, Wilkinson said, “That’s a very good question. Under the Education Act, school boards are responsible for transportation policy. If it’s been set up here locally, where trustees who are duly elected are not able to hold the people who making these decisions to account, then there is something that is not right.”

He intends to raise that issue with the Minister of Education.

“I think this is exactly something that this task force will have to look into.

“In principle, there should always be people who are elected, who can hold the decision makers to account. That is why we have school board trustees, municipal councils, and Members of Provincial Parliament. What I’ve been told is that the administration told the school board trustees it wasn’t their decision to make.”

Wilkinson said in other school boards, there are consortiums where coterminous school boards work together, and there are trustee representatives. In those boards, the consortia must report to the trustees – and trustees are representatives at the consortium table, he said.

“The situation here appears to be quite unique – and it is troubling.”

He intends to share that information with Minister of Education Leona Dombrowksy.

Wilkinson said the moratorium is in place until December, and the task force being created by the ministry is to represent all of the stakeholders.

“They are working to get a chairman. We need to make certain the chairman of that task force is impartial.”

Wilkinson said the independent school bus operators have asked Justice Coulter Osborne, the former integrity commissioner for Ontario, to work on their behalf.

“Osborne has a tremendous reputation, and I’m delighted to see that he is going to work on their behalf,” he said.

McDougall believes it is important that elected officials remain accountable.

“There is a clear disconnect between what is supposed to happen at school boards, and what actually does happen,” she said.

She felt the day’s protest was important “because it’s been over two months since we’ve talked to [Wilkinson] at the May rally in Arthur.”

At that time, Wilkinson said his government would respond and consider a task force and moratorium.

“But since Minister Dombrowsky’s announcement, we have heard nothing from her office … I think this is important given that this is an election year. Rural Ontario exists; we have voters who live and work here, who contribute to their communities … and we are going to be voting on Oct. 6.”

McDougall added, “It boils down to a lack of accountability.”

“When we talked to MPP Wilkinson, he tells us that this was a school board decision. When we talked to Bruce Schieck we are told that he, as a trustee, didn’t have a say, or a vote – that there was no motion – and that school board officials dictated that this was a ministry-mandated decision.”

McDougall added, “No one is taking responsibility and we’re caught in between. We’re a third generation business that has now been displaced because there was no accountability.”

She said moves now will be too late for some businesses. “I think we are too late for us, but our hope and goal is that this policy that has devastated and destabilized the industry will be stopped so that they can take a careful, considerate, and thoughtful review to measure what the long term consequences are.”

She agreed in the short-term the board gained $900,000  and another $2-million by moving to a full-tender process.

“What is the long-term price that is going to be incurred because you are losing small [community businesses] who pay taxes, contribute to the community?

“It seems to me if Mr. McGuinty truly believes that small business is the heart of rural Ontario, he should pay particularly close attention to what is going on in rural Ontario.”

McDougall said it “has been particularly devastating not just in the Upper Grand District School Board; it’s provincial.”

She said the impact is more pervasive than Wilkinson might want to admit.

“What has happened to us, will happen to others in 2013 when this process is mandated across the province. We’re trying to ensure what happened to our family business does not happen to other family businesses. There’s been a disproportionate negative impact on small and medium size business.”

She cited Ruth Ann Staples, of Epoch’s Garage, in Kenilworth.

For some locals, it is past the point of no return.

“The capital investment required to come back from this type of displacement is too onerous,” McDougall said. “We’ll never get back in it like we were before. A bus costs $100,000 – we’ve had to sell off our equipment. We only have five busses left – we used to have 20. And we only have one route left, and that is for five years.”

Existing contracts are only for five years in the RFP process so there is “no way whatsoever” to restart.

“This was a very short-sighted gain that they hoped to achieve, but it will have a long term expense to the rural community.”

McDougall  said as an association, “We’ve hired [Osborne] to do our own review to see if the process was fair, or accountable as we were told. It will be very interesting to see what that report will garner, because that report is intended to be ready for September.”

She added, “It is curious to me that the government of Ontario can’t retain someone of that pedigree. They promised two months ago to have a task force in place and ready to go. We were able to do it in three weeks. In an election year, it’s most curious.”

She remains concerned trustee input was not sought. She believes there needs to be accountability somewhere.

“The system is broken. School board governance is very broken. The ministry controls what school boards do.”

While school boards are supposed to be autonomous, “ultimately, they are paid by the Ministry of Education and there are financial incentives for school boards to do what the ministry wants. It was a pretty big carrot – and they took it.

“In fairness to Schieck, we asked him to ask questions of Janice Wright and he was told that basically it was a fait accomplis and there was nothing the trustees could do. It defies logic about what the ministry has mandated school boards to do – school boards which are supposed to be autonomous. The process is flawed and school board governance is broken. In theory, they are accountable, but not in practice.”

She is also concerned with the fact the process was cited to be a request for proposal – not a tender.

“But, when it boils down to the lowest nickel – that’s a tender. But a real tender is where you have to get up in public and read out the numbers. But no one knows what the winning bid is.”

Staples said bus operators appreciate the Liberal government for acknowledging the failure of a pilot RFP.

She said as a result of rallies in Arthur and Belleville on June 23, Dombrowsky announced a moratorium on the ministry’s support for a piloted procurement process and a task force to review the results.

“Unfortunately, the deadline for her review is December 2011, which may be too late for some companies,” Staples said.

Since the announcement the minister’s office has been silent on the task force mandate, membership or the man the government is to appoint.

“As a director of the ISBOA and as a school bus operator from Kenilworth, it is in my opinion that the announcement of the moratorium and task force is an overdue acknowledgement that the school bus industry is already providing quality service at competitive rates,” Staples said.

She said in correspondence from Wilkinson, the trustees are accountable for the process, and the process was required by the Auditor General, but trustees were not consulted, and the Auditor General warned in a report such a process would give rise to “monopoly situations.”