Goldie Ghamari, MPP for Carleton, is demanding answers.
With the return to school for Ottawa’s English and Catholic school boards this week, there many students who do not have a ride to school due to bus route cancellations and driver shortages.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” said MPP Ghamari. “Our riding has a huge rural area. Putting high school students on city buses is not an option here. Having children walk to school or ride their bikes along roads with 70 or 80 kilometre per hour speed limits when they live are five or 10 kilometres away from their school is not even thinkable.”
The main issue for the shortage of drivers has been COVID-19. Many drivers are seniors, and they left their jobs not wanting to be exposed to the virus. Many did not come back, leaving the Ottawa Student Transit Authority (OSTA) with a shortage of drivers. According to the Ministry of Education, the extreme shortage of drivers is a problem that is local to Ottawa, particularly in the western communities and rural areas of the city.
The shortage is not a new thing. Many routes in the Carleton riding were cancelled in June due to drivers not wanting to work with the poor air quality issues caused by forest fires in Eastern Ontario and western Quebec.
“The Ottawa Student Transit Authority announced that they had secured contracts with nine out of their 10 operators,” MPP Ghamari said. “Ninety per cent might be great in the classroom, but is not good enough when it comes to bussing. That 10th operator serves a lot of rural families in the Carleton riding. And many of the other routes that were cut because of the driver shortage were cut in rural areas, where families rely on school buses the most.”
MPP Ghamari said she first heard about the problem when she saw the media reports last week. By the next day, she said the inbox at her constituency was filled with emails from parents who were desperate for a solution.
“I want to know why that contract was not finalized, and I want to know why many of the cancelled routes were in the rural areas, where parents commute to the city and have no other way of getting their children to school,” she said. “Now, many constituents in my riding are faced with missing work and not getting paid because they have drive their children to school and then pick them up.”
The Ontario Ministry of Education funds 72 school boards in the province. From there, all decisions regarding student transportation including procuring and managing contracts are made by member school boards at the local transportation consortium level.
While school boards are entirely responsible for student transportation, the province has increased funding to school boards, enhanced wages for bus drivers and invested in strengthening safety of school buses to ensure kids can reliably get to and from school. Transportation funding for Ottawa Catholic District School Board and Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is over $75 million for the 2023-24 school year.
In Ontario, school boards and student transportation consortia procure contracts with independent businesses, bus operators, to deliver transportation services to students. The ministry does not have a role in matters related to procuring contracts. This rests with school boards and student transportation consortia and bus operators.
MPP Ghamari spent most of Thursday and Friday of last week trying to find answers and solutions to the problem. She said she was communicating with OCDSB Trustee Lynn Scott, OCSB Trustee Scott Phelan, and the Ministry of Education. MPP Ghamari said that the majority of the complaints and inquiries received at her constituency office came from OCDSB schools. She added that it is another example of how the school board has lost focus on the most fundamental issues they are responsible for.
“The OCDSB had multiple meetings focusing on gender rights and banning uniformed police officers from visiting or partnering with their schools,” she said. “They allowed these meetings to become such a circus that they had to call the Ottawa Police Service – these are the same officers they banned – to come and restore order at their own public meetings. We understand that these are important issues, and we want all students to feel comfortable and safe. But before they worry about who is going to use what washroom and what pronouns we are going to use, they should have first figured out how to actually get the students to school.
“The board has been disrespectful to the police, and disrespectful to parents of female students who were shut down and called transphobic for simply raising concerns about their daughters having to share washrooms with male students who identify as female. Now, they are being disrespectful to rural families in Ottawa by not prioritizing and solving this problem.”
Schools have been the number one priority for MPP Ghamari since she was first elected to represent the newly formed Carleton riding in 2018. She has worked at Queen’s Park to secure the funding for new construction or expansions for nine different schools in her riding.
“I worked hard to get more schools and more classrooms in Carleton,” said Ghamari. “This is the most important issue for families in our riding. I am not going to accept families being stuck with no school bus transportation for their children. The school boards should be ashamed of this mess.”
Local parents are encouraged to check on the status of their children’s bus routes on the OSTA website at www.ottawaschoolbus.ca.