Local school boards have fined a school bus company more than $10,000 for the ongoing driver shortage that is still impacting 1,300 students.
Levying the financial penalty is one strategy the boards are implementing to respond to the shortage.
"That unfortunately doesn't fix the problem," said Todd White, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
'Families want their buses on time, and they want to know that they're reliable.' - Todd White, chair, HWDSB
"On one hand we can work to potentially save some money on the service we're not receiving, but at the same time, we need to do that hand in hand with other strategies."
Eighteen bus routes are still without drivers, six weeks after school began. An Oct. 16 deadline set to resolve the situation has come and gone without resolution.
White said that the two local boards have made "a little progress" in that new drivers have been recruited and trained, but other drivers becoming ill or quitting has left the number of vacant routes steady.
The 18 routes all belong to Attridge Transportation, one of four companies the boards contract with.
Attridge is responsible for a total of 200 routes in Hamilton. A representative from Attridge did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Strategies being considered
Members of the transportation consortium of Catholic and public boards met Tuesday to discuss other strategies to deal with the problem.
Those may include:
- Using more board resources on top of provincial funding to create incentives for new or former bus drivers.
- Considering other penalty rights under the transportation contracts to recoup some money for service not rendered.
- Looking into other companies nearby in case they can help make up the shortfall.
"While we're not happy to spend extra dollars, at the same time, we're not providing the service that we promised families that we would provide," White said.
No routes have been cancelled due to the shortage. Companies are doubling up routes – finishing one and picking up another. That's causing average delays for students of 16 minutes, though the upward end of the range is more than 45 minutes.
"Families want their buses on time, and they want to know that they're reliable," White said.
'For every step forward, we took an almost equal step back'
The province provided HWDSB with $14.4 million for its transportation needs for last school year, and the board pitched in $1 million of its own money to supplement that.
White said there's a "chronic problem" in terms of the cost structure that companies bid within to provide some of a local jurisdiction's bus services.
Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé examined Toronto's school bus shortage from 2016 in a report released in August, and ombudsman staff continue to look into issues with busing around the province.
In his report, Dubé acknowledged he'd heard concerns raised about procurement of busing contracts across the province and issues with driver pay and working conditions. Those were outside the scope of his report.
Last year, the Hamilton shortage was resolved by the first week of October due to recruitment and training efforts. But this year, "for every step forward, we took almost an equal step back" due to lost drivers, White said.
The consortium did not set a new deadline after its Oct. 16 date passed without resolution.