'Communication failures' caused school bus crisis of 2016, Ontario ombudsman's report reveals

Ontario’s ombudsman is reassuring Toronto parents the school bus woes that left thousands of students scrambling to get to class last fall was caused by “communication failures” — and they won't be repeated this September.

Toronto school boards to start using call centre for school buses, ombudsman Paul Dubé says

Ontario's ombudsman unveiled a report Thursday on the shortage of school bus drivers that plagued Toronto school boards last year. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Ontario's ombudsman is reassuring Toronto parents the school bus woes that left thousands of students scrambling to get to class last fall was caused by "communication failures" — and they won't be repeated this September.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé released a harsh critique about the "large-scale busing crisis" Thursday, weeks before the start of this school year.

Dubé called the shortage of drivers last year "a systemic, administrative failure on several fronts" — one which affected about 60 routes across the city and made more than 2,600 children wait hours for buses that were late or never showed up. The problem continued for months.

He referred to this "lapse in safety protocols, which placed young and vulnerable students at risk" in his report as the "most disturbing aspect" of the busing crisis. 

While some students lost out on learning time, others endured longer than usual bus rides because some drivers made extra stops to help service driverless routes, the report reads.

'Balls dropped across the board'

Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé released a report on last fall's school bus woes at Queen's Park on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

There were clear warning signs of trouble months before the crisis hit, but officials failed to adequately plan. 

"There were balls dropped across the board," Dubé told reporters Thursday. "I look at it as a snowball that started rolling in November 2015 when a new procurement problem process was put in place."

It's a communication issue and a communication failure on many fronts.- Paul Dubé

That new procurement decision was made by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) nearly a year before the school bus shortage, Dubé explained.

The school boards were using buses from a consortium of companies, which Dubé asserts is where the confusion originated.   

"They didn't know what routes they were bidding on," he said. "Bus drivers are not paid to get to and from their routes so they want to have a route that is close to the point of departure. Once the routes were revealed, there were some problems there." 

The Toronto school boards hired and trained school-bus drivers last September to deal with the shortage that caused major delays during the first week of school. (CBC)

According to Dubé's investigation, bus operators bid on "bundles" of 30 routes, in which information about the location and geographic area was not released. 

"Two new bus operators, unfamiliar with the Toronto landscape, were awarded hundreds of new bus routes, while familiar operators were shifted to different geographic areas," he wrote in his report.

"Some drivers dissatisfied with their new routes peremptorily quit or changed employers at the last minute."

These developments made it difficult for the companies to assign and retain drivers, and once the school year started, overwhelmed bus drivers, unfamiliar with routines, routes and security protocols, dropped students off alone, at wrong stops, or with strangers on the street, the report read.

Drivers also doubled or tripled up on routes while 60 were left driverless.   

"It's a communication issue and a communication failure on many fronts," Dubé added. 

Report puts forward 42 recommendations

His investigation followed weeks of mounting frustrations for parents and school principals. The report puts forward 42 recommendations.

"Our recommendations are aimed at correcting and making sure that stock is taken earlier on in the year," Dubé explained. 

We're hopeful that things will be in a better state when school starts this year.- Paul Dubé

A crucial change is school boards will set up a professional call centre to handle questions and complaints related to busing, he added. 

The recommendations also include allowing bus operators to bid for specific routes, developing a communication protocol to inform parents of delays and cancellations, requiring operators to give drivers ongoing training on ensuring certain students get dropped off with a parent, and ensuring all bus routes can realistically be completed in the allotted time. 

"We're hopeful that things will be in a better state when school starts this year," said Dubé.

School boards agree to recommendations

TDSB along with Toronto's Catholic board agreed to all of Dubé's recommendations, as well as to introducing new policies. 

TDSB and TCDSB say they have accepted the recommendations and are introducing new policies. (CBC News)

These include giving bus operators routes earlier in the planning process, installing new bus routing software and launching an online transportation portal to allow parents to access information and get email notifications if there are any school bus cancellations or delays.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told CBC Toronto the changes allow the school boards to have details about their routes about three weeks earlier than usual.

"We've received assurances from our bus carriers that they don't anticipate any significant challenges like we saw last year," he said.

We've received assurances from our bus carriers that they don't anticipate any significant challenges like we saw last year.- Ryan Bird, TDSB

TDSB and TCDSB bus operators include Attridge, First Student, McCluskey, Sharp, Stock, Switzer-Carty and WAT, according to a news release. 

"Should bus operators not have sufficient drivers by Aug. 11, 2017, bus routes will be removed and distributed to other companies which have the capacity to take on the work," the statement read. 

"School bus operators ... have all indicated that they do not anticipate any significant challenges like those of last year and are continuing to hire and train drivers throughout the summer," the school boards said in a news release Thursday. 

'Our situation remains the same'

Meanwhile, Unifor Local 4268 president Debbie Montgomery, who represents some 1,200 drivers across the city, pointed out that many of the pressures that drivers voiced in terms of working conditions and wages remain unresolved. 

"Our situations remains the same as drivers. We still have split shifts, we still have cut-up days and we're still all poorly paid for the responsibility that we bear," she said.

Montgomery says she's heard from some companies that there haven't been enough drivers even during the summer, something that could be chalked up to the fact that it is seasonal work. However, she also thinks fewer people want to stay in the job.

"I think operators are a little bit nervous," she said, adding that whether there will be shortages this year remains to be seen as drivers sign up for routes in the next few weeks.

With files from Nick Boisvert and Shanifa Nasser