Each day, school buses are an important part of many Ontario lives and families. Daily, parents entrust in excess of 825,000 of Ontario’s children into the care of professional school bus drivers. These dedicated individuals get up in the early morning hours, through rain, sleet, snow and hail to inspect, fuel and warm approximately 20,000 school purpose vehicles across our province. These drivers, with the support of hundreds of mechanics, dispatchers, safety officers and operations employees repeat this process every school day. Families, with children as young as three years of age, depend on their school bus driver to be on time every day so that they can confidently transfer care and responsibility of their child to our education system.
School bus and student transportation service providers are an integral part of our education system and the economy of Ontario. There are just over two million students attending elementary and secondary schools in Ontario – 42.5% of them depend on a bus for transportation. Parents need the buses to be punctual each day so they can get to their jobs and accomplish other daily priorities on time. As well, there are approximately 115,000 teachers who need bus companies to deliver their students promptly so that they can do their job effectively.
Student transportation is funded by less than 5% of the $21 billion dollars spent annually on education in Ontario. At the Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA), we have spent a considerable amount of time and effort highlighting the financial requirements of student transportation to govern- ment. Appropriate funding and student safety are directly linked to one another. Safety starts with paying fair wages for well-trained, professional bus drivers and associated employ- ees, followed closely by purchasing and maintaining current school bus fleets. It is a very simple formula – we need good drivers and well-maintained buses.
The past 5 to 10 years have been very challenging for student transportation service providers. The changes in responsibility from school board-based transportation depart- ments to independent consortiums has created a number of complications. As well, the change to mandatory competi- tive procurement for service providers created its own set of challenges and opportunities. What was historically a mutual respect and understanding of the relationship between the cost of service and the safety and security of our students, has been strained to the point of breaking in many regions of the Province. It has led to the collapse of long-standing relationships between school boards and service providers who provided 25-50 years of good quality service. It also led to legal challenges where service providers felt compelled to sue their Consortia customers. It also brought about the frag- mentation of OSBA and creation of the Independent School Bus Operators Association.
The good news is that as a result of all the turmoil over the past decade, there is a renewed commitment among all stakeholders for a return to fairness, understanding, educa- tion and cooperation to ensure the continued safety of student transportation.
2014-2015 saw a significant year of accomplishments for OSBA members and the industry in a number of areas. OSBA participated in approximately 40 meetings and conversa- tions with Minister of Education Liz Sandals and her politi- cal staff, Premier’s Chief of Staff, Minister of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs, Assistant Deputy Minister-Ministry of Government Services, PC Education Critic and others. OSBA continually advocated on behalf of all OSBA members, particularly regarding a fair, open and transparent competitive procurement process; the withdrawal of unsuitable Request for Proposal (RFP) documents until further amendments; increased wages for all school bus drivers in Ontario; more open and accountable flow through of government funding from school boards to transportation consortia to school bus service providers; and an update to the 2007 Cost Benchmark Study originally done by Deloitte Touche.
In addition to a strong focus of government relations, OSBA continued to advance a number of important industry issues and assist members with daily safety and legislative matters such as individual employee driver licensing concerns arising from DriveTest Centre issues and delays due to medical issues or background checks. OSBA also provided four highly informa- tive, online training webinars covering in excess of 30 timely topics impacting daily operational issues of all school bus service providers and school boards/transportation consortia. OSBA was also very successful in accomplishing a number of amendments to various legislative regulations in 2014-2015.
OSBA worked on numerous issues to further assist mem- bers and help the school bus industry continue to move for- ward including:
- Justice Colin Campbell’s independent review of competitive procurement for student transportation. We applaud Premier Wynne and Minister of Education Liz Sandals for this action. The OSBA and several other industry associa- tions participated in Justice Campbell’s investigation and we anxiously await the release of the report later this year.
- The Provincial Auditor General’s office has also questioned how the last 10 years of change and turmoil in the student transportation industry has affected safety and efficiency and they have launched their own investigation. The OSBA and several other industry associations have also met with the Auditor General’s staff and we look forward to their report expected out later this year.
- Conversations with the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) regarding when Ontario should adopt the eight-lamp (amber and red) warning light system, which will not only improve the safety of children around school buses, but help reduce confusion for motorists and facilitate more effective enforcement.
- Input to the private member’s Bill5 0 in support of enabling legislation to allow video evidence to be used by law enforcement agencies to prosecute motorists who disobey the school bus stopping law.
- Ongoing work towards the development of a single, con- solidated criminal background check that will meet and possibly exceed, the needs of the Ministry of Transportation for driver licensing and school boards/transportation consortia for the vulnerable sector.
- Dialogue with the Rail Safety Branch of Transport Canada regarding rail safety for school buses at protected crossings.
- Discussions with the Ministry of Transportation regarding potential regulations for controlled use of white roof-top strobe lights on school buses as well as permissible mark- ings/lettering/logos/slogans, etc. on school buses. OSBA actively participated with the MTO on the development of enforcement officer guidelines expected to be issued soon. OSBA looks forward to the upcoming joint safety conference planned for October 2015 in Collingwood. At this event, transportation consortia, school bus companies and suppliers will gather to share the vision for safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable student transportation industry in Ontario.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our volunteer Board of Directors and administration staff for the countless hours they have spent in attending and pre- paring for meetings and committee work. OSBA is also grateful to our fellow industry trade associations, OASBO and ISBOA, for their ongoing commitment to student safety and quality transportation in Ontario. Most importantly, I thank all of the OSBA members for their ongoing support and commitment to the safety of the children in their care across Ontario.
Former OSBA President