London school bus drivers’ demands exceed other regions – The London Free Press



London’s school bus businesses are looking for a big payday, but drivers for other schools in Ontario will be behind the wheel for a lot less.

The seven bus businesses serving London and area schools want a 20 to 25 per cent increase in their budgets, adding more than $9 million to the budget for school boards and the student transportation services (STS) office here.

Meanwhile, the school boards’ student transportation services office – which manages school bus services in Windsor, Waterloo and Niagara region – has dealt with surging cost increases, for a lot less.

Budget increases for the STS in those communities range from three per cent to 14, they said Wednesday.

“Good contracts are a win-win, not win-lose. We both need to win and find a solution to ensure reliable service with the changes in the marketplace,” said Benoit Bourgault, general manager of Student Transportation Services for Waterloo Region.

In Waterloo, the school busing office there just signed a 10-year deal, expiring in 2028, that boosts its budget about five per cent, and increases driver wages to $17.50.

But bus businesses in London were quick to jump on that number as comparing apples to avocados, and the reason it is not a fair comparison is complex, said Les Cross, spokesperson for the seven bus businesses.

“They did not have the rollbacks we have had here,” said Cross.

Thames Valley District and London Catholic school boards said that increasing bus spending more than 20 per cent would create a $4 million-deficit in school spending.

“The reality is we don’t want to negotiate based on what other costs are, but what our (bus) owner-operators costs are,” said Jacquie Davison, business superintendent with the Catholic board, adding she is not concerned what other boards are doing.

“We want out taxpayers taken care of, we want to be good stewards.”

In Niagara Region, bus costs rose three per cent, but they also adjusted routes and service and pulled some buses off the road to save money, while raising the pay for drivers to $17 an hour, said Lori Powell, executive director, Niagara Student Transportation Services.

“If we did not take action, the impact would have been driver shortage, we would not be able to retain drivers,” said Powell. “We were able to secure additional money through efficiencies.”

Niagara has a contract from 2012 to 2020, but opened it to boost drivers’ pay after the minimum wage rose, she added.

In London and area, school bus operators have threatened to not offer bus service when schools open Sept. 4, if they don’t get a new contract with the local STS office. Among the issues is raising wages for drivers, in order to retain them. The London boards have offered a 10 per cent budget hike that would boost local salaries to $17 an hour, and to continue bargaining by going to mediation.

In Windsor, the STS in that city signed a five-year deal with drivers in April that will boost its budget from $22 million in 2016 to more than $25 million in 2019, an increase of about 14 per cent.

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Windsor also “found efficiencies” with dropping and altering routes and finding other internal savings, said Gabrielle McMillan, manager of the Windsor-Essex Student Transportation Services office.

But London cannot be compared to other boards, said Cross.

It dates back to 2011, when school boards began using a request for proposal process to determine who will win bus contracts. In 2013 two bus companies sued the school boards here saying it was an unfair process. A court injunction was slapped on the boards, meaning the contracts were not altered, or improved upon, from 2013 to 2018.

Other school boards were able to pay more to their bus providers over that time period bettering services, meaning they can pay less to them now, said Cross.

“It is time to address the imbalance. We lived by those contracts and died by them,” said Cross, adding his company, Elgie Bus Lines, has lost money. “Other boards did not have an injunction over five years.”

Over that time period, busing costs here were reduced by about $20 million in London and a portion of that needs to be built back, he added.

These smaller budget hikes at other boards “are just solving the wage issue alone,” said Cross.

Bourgault also warned against comparing London to other cities.

“London is in a peculiar position . . . it missed a market reset years ago,” due to the injunction, he said.