Worried about buses? Consider the schools
There has been a substantial amount of press devoted to school buses in recent weeks. What topic could possibly be nearer or dearer to our hearts in a civilized, caring society?
Over 100 charges related to violations of the Highway Traffic Act are now pending. Various contracts with the English School District have been suspended. A general state of disrepair, fuel leaks, inoperable safety features and faulty brake lines have been alleged.
Now many of the operators claim that the problem is inexorably tied to the Public Tendering Act, and it may come as a surprise to many that I am sympathetic to this suggestion. As an architect who has attempted to eke out a reasonable living for myself and my employees for over 35 years here in the province, what do I know about school buses? Well, as to their fitness, I would say diddlysquat. Such mechanical technology has always eluded me.
But I can say that I understand full well what it’s like when you have made a considerable investment in your company and your livelihood is under attack. When your choice is to determine the lowest possible operating budget for a public tender bid, or layoff your drivers and sell your infrastructure, what would you do? Most of us would not knowingly jeopardize the welfare of our children. But being forced into bankruptcy, I expect you might hedge your bets, so to speak. We cannot presume to know the pressures some of these operators are under.
But allow me take you back to a time when schools here in the province were routinely condemned. I should know - I personally and officially condemned many of them. Mould. Poor indoor air quality. Poor lighting. No sprinklers. Lack of ventilation.
Insufficient or ill-defined means of safe egress. Cookie-cutter schools without architectural input. If this was not the case, why did the last government drain the provincial coffers replacing them?
It wasn’t that long ago. But something even more insidious has crept into the equation. In recent years, government bureaucrats have taken aim squarely at architects by assembling a bureaucratic regime determined to drive down professional fees for architectural design. That’s schools, hospitals, community centres. The places we go every day, and more often than not, with our children.
For decades, politicians awarded consulting contracts to their friends and those who routinely padded the coffers of the party. Ever notice how or wonder why the $1,000-per-plate dinners were packed with consultants? It was a pig trough. The more you ate, the dirtier you got.
However, in recent years, governments have increasingly awarded professional architectural services based on the lowest cost bid. Within the last year, architectural services for schools have been awarded by government based on professional fees that are as much as 70 per cent less than provincial and national recommendations. Yet, government claims to be com- mitted to exceptional buildings, especially with respect to safety, energy and the environment.
The new Public Tendering Act suggests that a quality-based selection process might fix the school bus problem. In addition to bid price, quality-based parameters could be evaluated: frequency of inspections, age of fleet, safety features, a credentialing program for drivers.
But to address the problem of pork barrel politics and consultants, the genius bureaucrats who drafted this legislation swung 180 degrees and declared architecture to be a non-professional service! No longer exempt from the act, architectural services are now to be procured based on lowest bid.
But the products of lowest cost architectural services are poor quality buildings, a disincentive to innovation, lip service paid to sustainability, and jeopardized public safety.
And if you think that last item is alarmist, just who do you think is responsible to ensure building codes are fully addressed in the design of new buildings? What profession assumes full and total liability for life safety in buildings? Architects didn’t become qualified by watching HGTV!
So, next time you send your kids off to school, the bus should be the least of your worries. Your children will probably only spend only an hour or so on the bus. But they will spend six hours in the school.