Toronto's two largest school boards are working to prevent another driver shortage this fall after an ombudsman investigation found that they mishandled a driver shortage, which led to significant delays as school started last September.

Toronto's two largest school boards are working to prevent another driver shortage this fall after an ombudsman investigation found that they mishandled a driver shortage, which led to significant delays as school started last September.

TORONTO — The two largest school boards here have taken steps to prevent another bus driver shortage this fall after an investigation found that their “actions and inactions” led to thousands of students being stranded as school began last September.

The investigation was led by Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé, according to a news release from Ombudsman Ontario. This is his first investigation involving school boards, which were recently added to the ombudsman’s mandate. Dubé details in the report, which was published on Thursday, problems with service delays that occurred in early September 2016 among bus operators contracted by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB).

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, Dubé stated in his report, “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, Dubé noted in the report.

“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,” according to the ombudsman. “They approached the issue of school busing with a sense of complacency and were unprepared when the crisis hit.”

The ombudsman’s investigation looked at 127 complaints, many from families who were significantly impacted by the busing disruption. For example, several young children with special needs went missing for hours after being dropped off at the wrong stops. Also, one mother told investigators she 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, according to the news release. By August 2016, numerous routes had been repeatedly revised, leaving some operators and drivers unable or unwilling to cover them.

On Sept. 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 TCDSB official told a senior colleague “You need to let everyone know.” However, neither board sent formal written notification to parents until Sept. 8 and 9, the ombudsman notes in the report.

Dubé also noted in the report 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.

Dubé makes 42 recommendations in the report, all of which have been accepted by the boards and their transportation consortium.

The two school boards stated in a news release on Thursday that they welcomed the ombudsman’s report. The news release from the boards also outlined the steps that the Toronto Student Transportation Group has taken to ensure the problems encountered last year are not repeated. Those steps include:

• Providing bus operators with routes earlier in the planning process to give them enough time to match all routes with drivers.
• Planning the installation of new bus routing software to ensure more accurate route planning.
• Conducting weekly teleconferences with bus operators to ensure readiness for September.
• Installing GPS on all buses for the 2017-18 school year so that school boards and bus operators can track the status of buses and improve the timeliness and accuracy of communication to parents.
• Launching a new online transportation portal to allow parents to access their children’s transportation information and receive email notifications if there are any school bus cancellations or delays.
• Adding more call center staff during peak times, such as the start of school, to improve responsiveness and communication to schools and parents.

All school bus companies have indicated that they do not anticipate any significant challenges like those of last year, and are continuing to hire and train drivers throughout the summer, according to the news release from the school boards. Should bus operators not have sufficient drivers by Friday, bus routes will be removed and distributed to other companies that have the capacity to take on the work.

“The TCDSB is appreciative of the recommendations contained in the Ombudsman’s report, as it reaffirms the solutions we have already undertaken collectively with our transportation partners since last September,” said Rory McGuckin, director of TCDSB. “The report will also help us monitor performance and support our ongoing commitment to provide an optimum level of school bus service for our students.”

“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 John Malloy, the director of TDSB.

The school 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.

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