School bus shut down averted

JOHNSTOWN – School buses will be running next week. Eleventh hour negotiations between school transportation consortium Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario, and the Eastern Ontario Bus Operators Association resulted in a tentative agreement Monday afternoon (August 28). The two parties have been at loggerheads for the past week as contract talks heated up.

Last week, STEO advised the families of over 30,000 students in the Upper Canada District School Board and Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario that they may have to find alternative transportation for their students. That accounts for three-quarters of the students at the two English-language school boards. At issue, negotiations between STEO and 19 bus companies for a new service contract. STEO is owned by the UCDSB and CDSBEO.

While schools are ready to open for September 5 for students, the EOBOA notified the transportation agency in early August that it would not take part in planning for the 2023-24 school year until an agreement was reached.

As late as Friday (August 25) a war of words between the two entities was heating up, but some cracks were also forming. UCDSB chair John McAllister told The Leader Friday that at that point, three companies that are members of the EOBOA had broken ranks and agreed to a new deal with STEO.

Frank Healey, president of Healey Transportation and spokesperson for the EOBOA said at the time the distance between the two sides was about $25 per day per route. McAllister said at the time that the school boards were funding bus transportation over and above what the provincial funding covered already.

Provincial funding for bus transportation has increased in the last year with a fuel subsidy increasing to $1.50/litre, which is still 10-20 cents below the market rate for diesel. Driver retention bonuses of almost $2,400 per route are paid from the province to companies through school board funding. According to the Ministry of Education, the average driver wage is $23/hour.

For the UCDSB, further money spent on transportation would result in programming cuts. In 2018, following a $30 million arbitration award to STEO contractors, the UCDSB faced an $18 million deficit. McAllister explained at the time that that resulted in a net 100 full time equivalent positions cut at his board. He said that the UCDSB was hesitant to enter into an arbitration process at the time to settle this contract.

In announcing the tentative agreement Monday afternoon, STEO CAO and General Manager Janet Murray said it was a positive sign.

“We are delighted to have reached an agreement with the school bus companies and to continue the positive relationships we have built over many years, for the foreseeable future,” Murray said in a release. “Throughout this process I know the school bus companies, our team, and the school boards have done everything possible to prioritize the needs of students and their families.”

Healey acknowledged the length of the negotiation process between EOBOA and STEO.

“This has been a long process, but I know our drivers will be happy they will be out on the first day of school, greeting familiar faces and playing such an important role for kids across our communities,” he said. “I want to thank STEO for continuing to work with us to reach an agreement, and I look forward to another four years of working together for students and their families.”

STEO and the EOBOA agreed details of the tentative agreement will remain confidential, other than the four-year term.

McAllister told The Leader following the announcement of the tentative agreement that the UCDSB does not see any need for cuts to bus service, or to program services at that board.

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