Toronto’s two largest school boards have taken steps to prevent another bus driver shortage this fall, after an investigation by Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé revealed their “actions and inactions” led to thousands of students being stranded as school began last September.
In his first investigation involving school boards, which were recently added to the Ombudsman’s mandate, Mr. Dubé details the chaos that erupted in early September 2016 amongst bus operators contracted by the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board.
The two boards and their shared transportation consortium failed to heed early warning signs that dozens of bus routes had no drivers – and even as the crisis worsened, they did not adequately warn parents, the Ombudsman writes in his report, entitled The Route of the Problem. Although busing delays and adjustments occur at the start of every school year, the “unprecedented” scope of the problem should have been clear before September 2016, he says.
“My investigation found that, far from being unpredictable and beyond the control of the school boards and Toronto Student Transportation Group, the 2016 transportation disruptions were rooted in their actions and inactions before the start of the school year,” Mr. Dubé writes. “They approached the issue of school busing with a sense of complacency and were unprepared when the crisis hit.”
The Ombudsman makes 42 recommendations in the report, all of which have been accepted by the boards and their transportation consortium. In a letter included in the report, the boards’ transportation governance committee pledges to “ensure that the startup for this coming September is less disruptive and is well communicated.” Among other things, an online portal has been launched to keep parents informed about bus delays, and a professional call centre has been engaged to handle inquiries and complaints.
The Ombudsman’s investigation looked at 127 complaints, many from families who were hard hit by the busing disruption. For example, several young children with special needs went missing for hours after being dropped off at the wrong stops. A mother lost her job because her daughter’s school bus was repeatedly late and she couldn’t get to work on time.
Ombudsman investigators reviewed emails and documents that revealed officials were aware of potential problems dating back to early 2016, after a new transportation service contract was signed and a new method was implemented for assigning routes. By August 2016, numerous routes had been repeatedly revised, leaving some operators and drivers unable or unwilling to cover them.
On September 1 – five days before the start of school – an email from the top transportation official warned both boards that “significant service delivery issues” should be expected, and one Catholic board official told a senior colleague: “You need to let everyone know.” Yet neither board sent formal written notification to parents until September 8 and 9, the Ombudsman notes.
The boards will report back to the Ombudsman on their progress on other improvements – such as a planned “where’s my bus” app targeted for September 2018 – in response to his recommendations.
Mr. Dubé noted that his office has received complaints about busing issues at other school boards, although none revealed problems on the same scale as those in Toronto in September 2016. He has shared his report with boards across the province in the hope that his recommendations will assist them in improving transportation policies and practices. His office has received more than 1,650 complaints about school boards across Ontario since it began overseeing them in September 2015, including hundreds related to busing; most cases are resolved without need for formal investigation.
The Ombudsman is an independent office of the Ontario legislature that resolves and investigates more than 21,000 public complaints per year about provincial government bodies and municipalities, universities and school boards. The Ombudsman recommends solutions to individual and systemic administrative problems. Since becoming Ombudsman in April 2016, Mr. Dubé has made a total of 156 recommendations arising from systemic investigations, all of which have been accepted.
The full report is available on the website of the Ontario Ombudsman.
Source: Ontario Ombudsman, Canada