Local school bus operators in Kingston held a drive-by demonstration outside Limestone District School Board (LDSB) headquarters on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. They were protesting a provincially mandated Request for Proposal (RFP) process initiated the night before by Tri-Board Transportation Services, who award school bus contracts in the area.
Approximately 25 school buses departed from Lake Ontario Park at 10 a.m., driving past LDSB headquarters on Portsmouth several times, and briefly parking outside.
Local bus operators said they are objecting to the new process, which they feel forces them to go head-to-head in an unfair competition with larger, multinational companies — as well as each other. They’d rather continue to negotitate their long-standing routes and contracts with Tri-Board each year.
Jenny Cox, who has been running a school bus business out of Sharbot Lake with her husband for 31 years, said smaller operators have much more on the line in the RFP process.
“What the large companies can lose in one area they can gain in another and that smooths that profit margin. If we lose our bid we are gone we can’t come back. We’re gone,” she said. “We are all going to spend our Christmas breaks doing an RFP. We could very well be putting each other out of business.”
She and her colleagues say they would rather see Tri-Board pursue a benchmarking process, which they say meets the province’s competitive procurement process, and avoids bias in favour of large outside operators.
Tri-board CEO Gord Taylor said that is not necessarily the case.
“Benchmarking is a process where, I understand as they’ve articulated, a third party is retained to survey the market and come up with a price, and that becomes the new price,” he said.
“What that does not meet is the test for openness and competition. That doesn’t allow an operator from outside Tri-Board who doesn’t currently work for us to come in and bid on the business. So it contravenes interprovincial trade guidelines… and I would say it fails with respect to competition,” he added.
Jennifer Watson, of local school bus operator Watsons Bus Line, said benchmarking has been used effectively by many school boards and consortia in Ontario over the last five years including in Huron-Perth, Sudbury, Algoma, Durham, Chatham-Kent and other regions.
“It guarantees a competitive price, avoids the problems with underbidding and monopoly service providers that have been prevalent with RFPs, and it ensures a robust and high-quality group of operators giving maximum flexibility to the consortium,” Watson said.
Both Watson and Cox both said they believe that under the RFP process, as many as 19 of the 23 current local operators could go out of business. Watson said 733 jobs are on the line.
“That’s a belief,” Taylor said. “Prior to coming to Tri-Board I did work with one of the larger operators and I can say from personal experience, those companies did not shave their margins to win business. They have shareholders they need to show profit to. They don’t cut prices to win business.”
He said each of the small operators will have an equal opportunity to compete under the RFP process.
“Each one of them has a pathway to retaining business if their technical and financial proposals are winners,” he said. “We are allowing for collaborative bids, so if they are small they can team up with another company… to give them sufficient mass to bid on a bundle of work.”
The route bundles range between eight and 75 buses. “They can pick a size that works for them, or works for them and a collaborator, and we’re going to entertain those bids as well.”
He also said that price will not be the only deciding factor in awarding the work.
“Seventy-five per cent of the bid, we call it technical: that is their proposal around safety, driver training, their recruitment and retention effort around drivers. How they train their drivers, winter driver training. There’s a whole gamut of things that we’re looking at including customer service,” he explained. “Twenty-five per cent of the bid is price. They will be awarded points on lowest price.”
“We’re spending $40 million of public money, we’re obligated to do it in an open, competitive transparent fair process,” he added.
Cox said she has heard from her fellow small operators that 90 per cent of drivers won’t work for new, larger companies if their small operators lose out.
“They don’t want to lose their seniority, they don’t want to lose their routes,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do in September. We’re in the middle of a driver shortage as it is.”
Watson agrees. “Most drivers are retired and are driving school bus to stay active in the community. They will not drive for these larger companies,” she said.
“Drivers that drive for local smaller operators are our friends, neighbours, family, most have driven for 10 to 25 years,” Watson added. “Our turnover is very low. Drivers are treated like family, not a number… If a driver has been employed with a smaller operator then goes to another company they lose all seniority, basically starting over. They may have 10 to 25 years experience but are treated as a new hire. They will lose their route they have been driving, as drivers already with that larger company will have seniority to pick and choose what run they want.”
Taylor said that one positive step that has been introduced for drivers in the RFP is a mandatory minimum wage of $18 per hour. This is higher than some operators are currently offering, he said, and he sees it as something that will help attract and retain workers to the industry.
“Drivers are scarce because drivers are not paid enough,” he said.
LDSB request delay in RFP
Trustees of the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) discussed the issue at their monthly meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Trustees Karen McGregor, Garrett Elliot and Robin Hutcheon suggested the RFP process should be deferred until after the COVID-19 pandemic. Chair Suzanne Ruttan pointed out that the board has no power of the RFP process as it is legislated, but could write a letter of concern in support of a deferral.
The board voted unanimously to write a letter reflecting the community concerns for Tri-Board to proceed with RFP. “We understand in absence of legislation or regulatory direction or deferral Tri-Board is required to proceed to a competitive procurement process,” their motion said.
LDSB also confirmed on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 that the letter had been sent to the Ministry of Education that morning.
Taylor said he does not see the pandemic as a valid reason for delaying the RFP.
“The pandemic is difficult for everyone, in school bussing, in schools,” he said. “However these four months has not had a significant material affect on school transportation. We’ve had under 40 bus cancellations due to driver shortages, out of 36,000 or so school trips.”
Cox said drivers have continued to work through the pandemic despite uncertainty and concerns over COVID-19 safety because of their sense of commitment.
“The only reason this is working is because drivers said ‘yes,’ and they show up every day. The kids need to be in school. We have always been in it for kids and parents.”
Asking the drivers to go to work for new operators, severing their long-standing relationships with their local employers, she said, could be a step too far.
“I’m afraid they aren’t going to realize until September comes and the drivers don’t show up,” she said.