It was, as they say, a teachable moment. In September 2016, at a time when parents have more than enough on their minds, Toronto’s school bus network was in chaos: some buses showed up late in the mornings, others not at all. And at the end of the day, drivers in some cases dropped kids off long distances from where they were supposed to.
Now it turns out, according to Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé, the crisis was avoidable. The provincial watchdog on Thursday released his report into last year’s mess — a shortage of drivers caused by chaotic planning and a lack of communication — stating the Toronto District School Board and its Catholic counterpart missed early warning signs and were caught flat-footed by school bus companies that, in turn, had a difficult time recruiting and retaining drivers.
Dubé made 42 recommendations to address the problems he found in his investigation, his first time reporting on a school board since his office was given the power to do so in 2015. The TDSB and TCDSB have agreed to implement every one of them.
“It’s our job to look after these children, and the fact that they were in an unsafe situation is unacceptable, untenable,” said TDSB trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher. “It just can’t happen again.”
But, well, it might.
“If someone told me, ‘I’m going to guarantee you there are no issues,’ I wouldn’t believe you,” said Jo-Ann Davis, Cary-Meagher’s TCDSB counterpart, who says better communication between the school boards and bus companies, as well as increased oversight by trustees, will help avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco. “The ombudsman’s done his job, and now we have to do ours.”
Still, even if it doesn’t happen again in Toronto, there are plenty of other boards in the province where it could.
While Dubé’s report is overwhelmingly focused on implementation problems at the two Toronto boards, the crisis really started with decisions made at Queen’s Park. Before 2008, boards negotiated bus contracts with local operators, and it wasn’t uncommon for those contracts to be renewed without much additional scrutiny, so long as service didn’t suffer. In an effort to control costs, the Liberals directed boards to consolidate their operations into larger consortia (there are 33 for the province’s 72 school boards) and then in 2008 required those consortia to contract out bus services via competitive bidding practices.
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In theory, boards would get cheaper service and therefore would better steward taxpayers’ money. In practice, however, boards lacking prior experience with large competitive procurements have run into legal troubles, service disruptions, and more. Several smaller bus companies have sued school-board consortia and the province itself, arguing the new procurement system unfairly freezes them out of bidding. Small-time operators in particular have a tough time simply putting in qualified bids, due to the complex application process.
In short, the province asked a level of government (school boards) to take on a job they weren’t prepared for and didn’t have much experience with.
In 2016, eight years into the new system, the government received a report from retired judge Colin L. Campbell on problems with Ontario’s school bus sector. The report recommended a number of changes similar to those Dubé made public Thursday. But it also acknowledged that going back to the old system of contracting out services wasn’t an option. Trade agreements signed by Ontario and Canada make government procurements open to competitive bidding, and to carve out an exemption for school buses would not be realistic.
The only way out is forward, then: school boards and their consortia must learn from colossal failures like Toronto’s (and from numerous other reports that demonstrate what a gong show the competitive bidding process has been so far). In particular, both Dubé and Campbell’s reports urged boards to modify their bidding documents so that safety and reliability would be considered alongside cost.
Bus operators, meanwhile, say the government can’t keep expecting them to deliver kids to school safely without an increase in funding — something the government has occasionally committed to but goes against the whole point of competitive bidding. Unifor, which represents thousands of GTA bus drivers, called on the government Thursday to end the “race to the bottom” the bidding process had created.
In Toronto at least, last year’s lessons are seared in the memories of school board trustees, who admitted Thursday they’d be “humiliated” were the chaos of 2016 to repeat itself. Meanwhile, parents across the province can only brace for the first weeks of September and hope they don’t get a re-run of last year.
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