School boards blamed for bus problems that stranded thousands of students (The Toronto Star)

August 10, 2017

10 August 2017

The Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board are responsible for systemic failure and communication breakdown, report says.

Andrea Gordon
The Toronto Star
August 10, 2017

The Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board are responsible for systemic failure and communication breakdown, report says.

Stephanie Duermeyer’s son could hardly wait to be picked up by the morning school bus on the first day of classes last September.

Instead the then 10-year-old, who has autism, waited and waited. For a special needs bus that never arrived to collect him from his child-care centre. Hours later, after many phone calls, busy signals and assurances from the bus operator that transportation was coming, his mother, who doesn’t drive, fetched her distraught son and brought him home.

On Day 2, he sat outside and cried for an hour after his friends had gone to school, wondering why he had been left behind. So Duermeyer, a single mother set to start a new job the following week, took him on three public transit buses to get him to his public school.

That was the beginning of more than two weeks of chaos and uncertainty for the family that even led to the school principal driving down to pick up the boy. And it all came flooding back to Duermeyer on Thursday after Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé released a report slamming Toronto’s public and Catholic school boards for mishandling the 2016 transportation crisis that had been brewing for months and that left thousands of students stranded.

“It was very stressful on him and really upsetting,” recalls Duermeyer, who says her son, who is usually calm and good-natured son and loves school, was crying constantly and couldn’t understand what was happening.

Dubé’s report cited “a systemic, administrative failure” and communications breakdown with parents, bus operators and schools, and laid the blame squarely on the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board for failing to heed early warning signs of a critical bus driver shortage.

The situation, which affected 2,687 students, including more than 300 with special needs, was not just chaotic, but dangerous, resulting in “serious cases where vulnerable children were at risk,” his investigation found.

Those included junior kindergarten students dropped off by substitute drivers several kilometres from their homes and left alone on busy roads in violation of boards’ safety protocols, and special needs students left outside schools without supervision or stuck on buses for hours.

Dubé cited examples of children as young as 4, and others with disabilities and unable to communicate going missing for hours after being dropped off at the wrong stops. A non-verbal 10-year-old with autism was found wandering in the yard of the wrong school; a 9-year-old was driven to Markham instead of Scarborough.

Duermeyer said those stories “give me goosebumps.” When the bus company told her they’d send a cab to pick up her non-verbal son for a few days, she only agreed under the condition she travel with him and the other children with special needs.

Dubé heard from a parent who lost her job after showing up for work late repeatedly after scrambling to get her daughter to school.

“If only the Toronto school boards and their transportation group had heeded the early warning signs all around them at this time last year, they could have averted or at least mitigated the busing crisis that engulfed them last September,” Dubé told a news conference.

His report notes that both boards have taken steps to prevent another driver shortage this fall and will report back to the ombudsman in six months on their progress on his 42 recommendations.

Dubé said the roots of the problems go back to the spring of 2016 when the Toronto Student Transportation Group, the transportation consortium that serves the two boards, signed on new operators and revised routes.

Later, despite receiving urgent warnings from the transportation group six days before school started, the boards failed to notify parents until after classes had resumed on Sept. 6 and they were dealing with a crisis and outcry from hundreds of parents.

In a joint statement Thursday, both school boards welcomed the report, titled “The Route of the Problem,” and said they have met with the transportation consortium over recent months to address its findings and “ensure last fall’s school bus disruptions are not repeated.”

New measures include installing GPS on all buses to track status and improve communication, adding call centre staff, weekly teleconferences with bus operators and a new online transportation site to keep parents updated.

Toronto parent Dave Stubbs, who joined forces with other parents to carpool their stranded kids last fall over weeks of busing problems, said he has registered on the new transportation portal, though not without challenges.

“I still haven’t been able to add my daughter’s information to the system despite the fact that the site indicates this function will be available Aug. 7,” he told the Star.

This year those families are already making contingency plans, despite the promises from the boards.

“Am I hopeful that this year we'll have safe, reliable bus service for our children with timely and transparent communication? Yes, most definitely. But I won't believe it until I see it.”

Students return to school on Sept. 5.

“The disruptions last fall should not have happened and we believe the steps that are being taken will ensure it doesn’t happen again,” said TDSB director of education John Malloy.

TDSB trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher had stronger words following the news conference.

“I think there’s plenty of blame to go around,” she said. “I don’t ever want to get the phone calls that I had last year, ever, ever again. It was horrendous and we had no power at that moment to fix it.”

She and fellow Catholic board trustee Jo-Ann Davis said it’s the job of the boards’ to ensure transportation is running and to react quickly to address potential problems.

“There are no guarantees but hopefully we’ve got better proactive processes in place to be making sure we don’t have the situation we had last September,” Davis said.

A spokesperson for the union representing some drivers said she’s encouraged by the report and supports the recommendations.

However, problems will continue to plague the sector until root problems causing the driver shortage — including minimum wage pay despite the huge responsibilities of the job, split shifts and stressful working conditions — are addressed, said Debbie Montgomery, President of Unifor Local 4268 and a former driver.

In the meantime parents like Duermeyer are hoping for the best but feeling apprehensive based on experience.

“I’m not holding my breath,” she said.