More Drummond report fallout: This time independent school bus operators

A group of school bus operators are in Toronto this morning as I write this post to make a visit to Queen’s Park.

At issue is their livelihood.

The Drummond report has suggested slashing non-teaching positions at schools but also transportation costs.

Steve Hull, the president of the Independent School Bus Operators Association, writes:

“The incomplete nature of the Drummond Report review of Student Transportation cannot be overstated. For example, the report states that, in spite of efficiencies through cooperation and creation of consortia, student transportation expenses have continued to increase, from $629 million in 2002–03, to an anticipated $845 million in 2011–12, an increase of 34%. This has nothing to do with competitive procurement. To suggest as much is grossly misleading.”

Hull, whose bus line is in Lambton County, says operators must deal with rising gas prices, the increase in minimum wage and having emissions testing costs added.

Hull’s members are lobbying to get the Coulter Osborne Task Force report released by the government.

The report is expected to outline other means of achieving competitive procurement of contracts and reducing transportation costs.

But as it currently stands, like the independent bookstores, or hardware stores, independent bus owners will have a tough time competing with the multinational companies.

“Potentially I could be put out of business in ONE round of RFP (Request for Proposal). The government has created the environment where as a School Bus Operator I have one customer and my buses can only be used for one purpose,” Hull told me. 

It’s the little guy who gets squeezed out.

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22 thoughts on “More Drummond report fallout: This time independent school bus operators

  1. Interesting to shine a necessary focus on something that might fall between the lines of a budget item for which many of us have but a slim or trailing awareness. Such scrunity though of the little is what give the bigger things a much welcome sharper perspective.

    Do you have any more information on what was described above as competitive pressures from multinationals.

    Beyond that, are competivie pressures from multinationals inherently evil?

    Moreover, is the “little guy” entrpreneur to be always held as an ideal and defended under every circumstance? I’m sure you can acknowledge the reality that some enterprises require: resources; scale of operatins; equipment; trainng; compliance; sources of capital; modernization, improvements and any number of productivity, technical and systemic efficiencies that are beyond the capacity for a “little guy” to bring to the equation.

  2. Anyone,
    Only two typos is pretty good actually. Not too many people care about typos in comments left on blogs, Twitter, to friends, etc. I’m glad you have high standards when it comes to grammar, typos.
    Now to your comment.
    The “little guy” in his community provides more than just transportation back and forth to school. He or she is also often asked to transport hockey teams, drive people home safely after stag and doe parties, etc.. In small towns, there aren’t taxi services, so this becomes important to ensure people get around safely.
    The school bus operators, from what I understand, have been able to make all of the necessary upgrades because they can use their vehicles for other uses.
    The government is proposing that they only use the vehicles to transport children to school. This gives the advantage to the bigger companies with a large fleet.
    Some of the school bus operators have had their businesses for years (and handed down through generations) and they’ve been able to keep up with compliance, training, modernization, etc.

  3. KR, you are evidently kind, considerate and clearly a very nice person, but you’ll have to pardon me nontheless for not otherwise being as quickly persuaded by the merits of your arguments on this topic.

    A yellow school bus is designed, manufactured and regulated for the dedicated purpose and priority of transporting children (and teenagers) to and from school and school-related events safely. Under the strict provisions mandated by law, motorists obey all highway laws pertaining to school buses because it is assummed the buses are carrying children…not delivering pizza’s; not delivering pigs to market; not transporting adults to parties, nor non-school teams to non-school events, or substituting in the role of any and all other transportation conveyances and taxi ferrying modalitities.

    It is hard to justify to taxpayers that their scarce financial resources should go not for the exclusive, cost effective and sole purpose of transporting school children but rather to somehow pick up the bill to support and help sustain at higher cost some ancilliary and indeed extraneous transportation ventures in any number of communities by any number of operators (whether they be legacy, or new business) in effect, providing government funding for their various divergent if not parasitic enterprises.

    If certain operators can’t compete in providing exclusive cost-effective contractual services, where should one then draw the reasonable and logical line to be fair to all in a free and open marketplace? For example it would be nonsensical to give special preference to the “little-guy,” small-town operator to qualify to perform the service of transporting children with his one vehicle, based preferrentially on all the “other” important services he may provide with it to the local community (such as performing such heart-tugging tasks as taking pets to the vet, and taking our granny to the church social) any of which are noble and important transportation needs that should be fulfilled by using other non-school bus vehicles and not subsidized by the public purse.

    Just as we want police vehicles to do exclusive police work under the allocated police budget, we need to see that school vehicles are put exclusively to the service and the needs of schools.

    • Thank you for your comparison of the School Bus Industry with that of Police Services. These two industries are paralleled by the one customer nature of the service they provide and each Industry also has a unique vehicle designed and built for one sole purpose. What you have failed to recognize is that your argument actually reinforces the position that the Independent School Bus Operators Association has put forward. The RFP Procurement system being as it stands will create a monopoly situation over time as service providers are wiped out in each round of the process. Recently at the Minister’s Forum at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association Convention in Toronto Municipal leaders were asking the Government what can be done about the continual rise in price for OPP service to their communities. Over the years the OPP has won bids in Municipalities to provide Police Service which obviously wiped out the existing Municipal Police Department. After the competition was removed the price of OPP services has continued to skyrocket year after year. Municipalities have nowhere else to turn as the local Police Department has been wiped out. That Police Department could not pick up and move to another Municipality and provide service there until the next Police Service Contract came up for Tender. The resources of that Department were absorbed by the OPP. Just as School Bus companies cannot pick up and move their business to another municipality. Once the competitors are wiped out there is NO competition and the provider sets the terms.

      Traditional economic arguments of free and open marketplace do not apply in an Artificial Market like Police Services or School Busing.

      I could not agree more that School Buses should only be used for the purposes of transporting Students to and from school and/or school related activities. In fact that IS what currently happens in the Industry. What local businesses do for communities is bolster the economy by purchasing supplies and services from other local businesses and make donations to local charities and youth sports teams among other things. The only time School Buses are used by the “parasitic enterprises” you refer to is when they might be used to transport people during a catastrophe such as the Snow Storm of December 2010 when individuals trapped on the 402 were transported to shelters by local School Bus Companies in the School Buses they own. These types of services are proudly offered to our community free of charge because the spirit of community consists of friends and neighbors coming together to assist others in a time of need.

      Operators in Ontario currently are providing “exclusive cost-effective contractual services” at or below the Bench Mark cost that was determined by an independent accounting firm hired by the Provincial government. This situation was not borne out of a search for cost savings. The Drummond Report in its suggestion of increased Transportation costs fails to recognize factors influencing the Industry such as increased costs to buses due to increasingly stringent emission standards ( a $10000.00 increase due to government initiative not bus companies), increases in minimum wage from $6.85/hr to $10.25/hr (not a cost increase under the control of any business in Ontario), the cost of fuel rising from $.63/litre to $1.30/litre (due to market forces we are not to be able to control)

      Independent School Bus Operators have always been in favour of competition. Competition means testing the market not destroying it.

      The RFP system as it stands is not good for the Industry but it is far worse for the Taxpayers of Ontario. If left unchanged after each round of RFP the competition will become slimmer and slimmer and after 2 or 3 rounds long after the current government is gone, Ontario taxpayers will be left footing the bill as the last company standing will then dictate the price. There will be nowhere else to turn.

      The ISBOA has sought the advice of Transportation Economist Professor James Cooper from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland on this matter. I invite you to check out our website http://www.isboa.ca to see more of Professor Cooper’s insight and learn more about the flaws in the RFP process.

      Steve Hull
      President, Independent School Bus Operators Association

  4. Thank you Mr. Hull for your useful and helpful analysis. As well, the link you provide to Dr. Cooper is worthwhile and appreciated. It is my sincere hope that the issues you raise are given thorough and thoughtful consideration by voters, policy-makers and the various stakeholders.

    i am curious: is the organization you represent, a province-wide, national, or local chapter of an international organization? Could you tell us a little about your organization? When was the organization established, how many member do you have and how many school bus vehicles are represented via the ranks of your membership?

    Of course, it would also be interesting to hear from your colleagues on the opposite side of the issue too. Why not extend an invitation to those that may be lobbying against your position, to present their perspective here for the further benefit of readers of this forum to additionally debate, discuss and help to better differentiate among the possible impacts, consequences and/or prospective benefits of the proposed decision at hand.

    • Anyone,
      ISBOA was formed in the fall of 2008 when it became apparent that the McGuinty government’s short-sighted proposal for competitive tendering of school bus services was going to destroy Ontario’s enviable school bus industry. Two rounds of pilot projects have now proven that the process is flawed, leading to inconsistent and arbitrary outcomes. The RFP process has no integrity, and is driving Ontario companies out of business. We are a province-wide Association that represents over 1900 individual school buses and 137 individual businesses and we continue to grow.
      I’m not aware of any of my colleagues that are lobbying on the other side of this issue. This situation arose as a solution to a problem that did not exist. What we are seeing here is a knee jerk reaction by the Liberals to the eHealth and Gaming scandals that have plagued our Province over the past few years.
      What would be very beneficial to all stakeholders is the Education Minister Laurel Broten releasing the Coulter Osbourne Report. A report that the Ministry commissioned to study the implications of the RFP process in the School Bus Industry. Taxpayers paid for the Osbourne Report they deserve to know what it contains.

  5. I am particularly in accord with your last statement, “Taxpayers…desrve to know…”We must insist on a government that is accountable, transparent and above all informs and is informed by an appeal to integrity and fairness.

    Citizens must demand and are entitled to a rigourous, fair, open, ethical examination of all issues.

    In this spirit, what additional disclosures would you, who have chosen to take and become a leading public presences on the matter at hand, like to make as far as your past and present involvement with this issue. Are you a school bus operator? lawyer? paid lobbyist registered to represent these or other clients? Are you paid by a percentage of dues? outcome? flat fee? or volunteer your services and expertise? Also, please also tell us a little about Prof. Cooper: is he a paid consultant to your and other similar organizations?

    As you can appreciate: a level playing field is good both for business, but especially good for public policy.

    • I am a School Bus Operator and I am not paid to act as President of ISBOA. I volunteer what ever time and resources I can to this cause because I believe in it, not only as an invested partner but because I see what will happen to the price and quality of service when competition is wiped out. Professor Cooper was paid as a consultant to provide his expertise to our cause by authoring a paper on the Economics of Transport. His paper was peer reviewed by Michael Trebilcock
      Chair in Law and Economics at the U of T. What you should also know is that Professor Cooper appeared at our Industry Meeting recently on his own dime (he lives in Europe) and asked to speak to our membership (the clip you viewed on our website) out of the passion he has for our cause.

  6. I for one wish to express gratitude for your sincerity and your cause. I encourage your commitment and hope it may serve as a luminous example to others.

    At this point, while it may be premature, will the organization consider filing suit to receive the report, and further (while you may not wish to discuss in too much strategic detail) will it be willing to stand up for its rights via additional legal action?

  7. Anyone,
    Thank you for your encouragement. ISBOA remains fully committed to take this battle to the limit.

  8. To Steve Hull and Anyone,
    Thank you for the questions and answers provided on the blog. It is important to keep the public updated on the issues surrounding the province’s plan to chop billions from its budget.
    Steve: Some school bus operators do have vehicles they use to transport others back and forth to events, such as hockey tournaments, don’t they?
    Anyone: Thanks for the assumption that I’m a decent person (I like to think that I am) but this really doesn’t have much to do with the issues at hand.

    • Yes School Bus Operators do have and use buses after hours to provide transportation services from time to time. These companies own the vehicles and use them outside of contracted service times similar to when the Board of Education allows the rental and use of gymnasiums for non school activities.

  9. @KR, True, perhaps “nice” doesn’t have much to do with anything…in most circumstances it is laudable, and should be encouraged. Definitely a compliment, as it was offered.

    But I was thinking, maybe in some instances, when needing to take a hard-eyed look at things, or encountering difficult facts, hard realities, lies, or the necessity to take a position against oppossing and dramatically opposite choices, a reflex to “nice” might get in the way, may even become a slight liability, hampering hard decision making and objectivity.

  10. Mr. Hull, This is a link to the letter written by Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky on June 23, 2011.

    http://www.osba.on.ca/files/Student_Transportation_EN.pdf

    The letter seems to point to a quite sensible and rational approach in wanting to address school transportation issues in a fair and balanced way for the benefit of the taxpayers of the province.

    Please explain what you find to be objectionable in this letter and clarify how it may relate to what you wrote above Re: “Education Minister Laurel Broten” and “knee jerk reaction by the Liberals.”

    I wonder why you have not mentioned the letter here.

    Also, more importantly, I wonder why you did not mention that there is a rival advocacy/lobbying organization, (of which I would be surprised if you were not aware), the Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA) that in juxtaposition to your organization, also received this letter, and generally feels quite differently about the proposed review.

    To help me understand, please contrast the differences between your newly-formed organization the ISBOA, and the more than 50-year old organization the OSBA, that long existed as the main voice of your industry, and why now within the industry itself, and among many, many constituent member companies–large and small–there are such opposing points of view…for which again in response to my question previously above, you claimed not be aware of any of this divergence.

    Perhaps your “battle to the limit” isn’t as pure as you have portrayed.

    • anyone,
      I do not believe I have seen this particular letter prior to seeing it on the link you provided. What i find objectionable about her letter is she fails to mention that the Auditor General DID NOT include Student Transportation in his reports of 2006 and 2008 specifically because of the fear of creating monopolies. In fact the AG specifically warned AGAINST interference in the Student Transportation market in previous AG Reports.. Furthermore there is no relation to the “knee jerk reaction” that I referred to in my last post. The history to this goes far beyond the letter you reference. For the record there are lots of other letters written by Politicians and Ministry Staff alike that I have not mentioned in our correspondence. None of them change what is fundamentally and economically wrong with what they are doing. They are empty words. I prefer action.

      As far as the Ontario School Bus Association; OSBA is not a rival group they share similar interests with ISBOA but differ in both the approach taken and constituent group they represent. ISBOA has only independent business owners while OSBA must straddle the line between small business and large multinational businesses. I am sure you can understand how their approach would indeed be different than ours.

      Please expand on your thoughts in your last line. I want to be clear that you were not questioning my integrity.

      If you are genuinely interested in ISBOA and our cause I am happy to continue to dialogue. If you are responding merely to argue please make that clear to me as well so that I may channel my resources accordingly.

      Again I direct you to http://www.isboa.ca . There are many resources available on our site to learn more about the history of this issue.

  11. Anyone,
    I am certain you meant it as a compliment. However, as you go on to note, a journalist doesn’t like to be referred to in this way. And with about 20 years experience, I have always sought objectivity and never let my personality get in the way of asking tough questions and chasing down stories hard to get at.
    Journalists often put on different hats as we all do in this life.
    A blog is a different vehicle as you can appreciate.
    I started my blogging career at a daily newspaper where we were encouraged to give opinions and even in some cases to be somewhat controversial.
    I haven’t been supportive of the idea of being controversial for its own sake. But sometimes playing devil’s advocate is helpful in getting information and ideas flowing.
    I prefer the term “decent” as I used in the earlier comment.
    I became a journalist because I believed I could shine a light on injustices, deceit, systemic problems and biases and I haven’t been afraid to tackle them head on.
    I have also been sued a couple of times over stories (a badge of honour for many journalists) and the other parties never got anywhere.
    As a journalist, I believe you told us earlier on this blog, how would you feel about someone calling you nice and have you ever been sued?

  12. Mr. Hull, I feel your forthrightness here is genuine. I certainly would not intend to impeach your integrity. I’m sorry if I gave an impression otherwise. Clearly there are complicated issues and much history and politics involved here, and I am sure that all readers who are discovering this matter for the first time, as am I, are astonished more at what we don’t know than what is quickly becoming apparent that we obviously need to know. And owe to good citizenship that we should know.
    Somehow we may have all assumed that school busses simply appeared when you needed them, and all was well with the world.
    So your help toward illuminating some of the reality and issues at stake is greatly appreciated.
    Since the last post, I’ve have a chance to look at some of the industry trade publications online and can see that there are many more issues than I innitially imagined, that will of course need to be ‘battled out.’ That’s what I was getting at…trying to get at the big picture.
    Are there current lawsuits filed? Have there been past lawsuits? Are there names of lawyers that could be brought into the discussion? We are a nation of laws, under the rule of law and it is curious to know how these laws have come to pass and/or may have to be reviewed.

  13. KR-The answer to your question is yes–many times–as an individual, as part of a corporation, as part of a class. Many claims pursued by me and my employers, some also against me and my employer. Some serious, and substantial, some more of an annoyance. Some standing in Canada, and others in a few other countries.

    Sometimes earning those honourable badges as you say, and sometimes not. Sometimes just plain enduring a grotesque exercise in futility amounting to a mountain of stress and a colossal waste of time, money and peace of mind.

    But, l believe in the courts.

    A democracy bestows rights, responsibilities and freedoms, developed by an informed citizenry, articulated through laws, and tested in courts.

    In a system of democracy, the courts (open, legitimate, accessible) and the rule of law are fundamental to how citizens assert, defend, challenge, seek remedy and redress, and pursue justice. This is how we test our rights; stand up our claims; present demands; pursue liabilities, define allegations; find facts, examine disclosures; challenge representations; shine a light on conduct, acts, transactions, failures to act, omissions, malfeasance, and criminality; and sometimes to shake the laws themselves.

    My experience as a class representative has been the most satisfying. Was any of it worth it? Mostly yes. Some victories, recourse, settlements, recovery. But also some dismissals and dead-ends. Had lawsuits filed against us that were plainly bullying to achieve a pestering effect. Some expensive, some empty hollow victories. Moreover, some questionable judgments and still unfinished business. Nevertheless, it is an inevitable and necessary part of our society and for some people an inevitable part of doing one’s job. Or in some cases even a vital matter of their life and freedom.

    An observation (probably not news for you): Lots of work to be done…Canadian laws are very restrictive against media, and freedom of expression in Canada is constrained with rather arbitrary access and very limited rights for media… (no doubt a whole big other conversation).

  14. @KR and @SH
    A minimum amount of research on this topic reveals basic facts:
    1) The commercial coach business in Ontario has many operators (big and small):

    2) It has a high monopoly component (especially in small towns);

    3) For many operators (big and small), it is exceedingly lucrative;

    4) Lack of transparency as far as verifiable ownership structures for private companies;

    5) Deficient, slight or uneeven government regulation, enforcement, oversight; and generally a point to note is how it has been skewed against taxpayers;

    6) On many levels transportation (for school children and otherwise) can be seen as a necessary public utility and most importantly Government needs to make a greater effort to negotiate on behalf of the public to ensure a better deal as far as service, value, efficiency, and openness of bidding process for government-sponsored contracts; better monitoring of labour, training;

    7) Little to no attention whatsoever by any players to important environmental issues: health issues of diesel; polluting older fleet; little in alternative-fuel solutions being discussed or legislation being enacted

    So, there are many angles to this story…but the least convincing in my humble opinion is the go-to easy trope: “the little guy who gets squeezed out.”

    Further…there are some “little” guys that deserve to be squeezed out…some bigger guys too.

  15. Also add to the above list:
    SAFETY
    It is shameful that School Bus Operator websites do not discuss or provide a list of accidents, deaths, fines; nor take a stand on the need for better and more rigorous safety inspections of vehicles and drivers.

    More shameful is how little public information on this is provided to us by government

  16. Curious also is the silence about the need for pulling old vehicles off-the road; the need for safety seat belts, air-bags, non-polluting buses; driver’s log of hours behind the wheel; check of driver’s criminal or other background…and much more.
    Seems Bus Operator Associations (big and small) don’t want to take innitiative on those issues just the profit and greed issues.

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