Ser­vice NL con­fi­dent in school bus sys­tem

Gov­ern­ment re­ly­ing on its in­spec­tors; notes only few cases of sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity

The Compass - - Editorial - TC ME­DIA — The Tele­gram

A red seal me­chanic can spend a full day in­spect­ing a school bus. The form they fill out in the process be­comes an im­por­tant part of a sys­tem de­signed to help as­sure child safety.

But what if the records are fal­si­fied? What if the owner of a bus com­pany wants a dif­fer­ent out­come and is will­ing to break the rules for it?

Can we say with cer­tainty the sys­tem still works? Are we con­fi­dent in school bus safety?

The ques­tions fol­low a se­ries of an­nounce­ments by Ser­vice NL over the past six months, with High­way Traf­fic Act charges laid against mul­ti­ple bus com­pa­nies, ser­vice sta­tions and me­chan­ics. Ear­lier this month, a fourth case was re­vealed, this time in­volv­ing crim­i­nal charges and al­le­ga­tions of fraud. The charges are be­fore the courts.

Look­ing at the cases col­lec­tively, both the school board and Ser­vice NL said their gen­eral con­fi­dence in the sys­tem stands.

“Ev­ery day, stu­dent safety is first and fore­most on our radar,” said Terry Hall, the English School Dis­trict’s as­sis­tant direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion for fi­nance and stu­dent trans­porta­tion.

His is a long ti­tle, but the bot­tom line is he’s re­spon­si­ble for the stu­dent trans­porta­tion di­vi­sion. His staff deals with school bus con­tracts, routes and ten­der­ing. They also have re­spon­si­bil­ity for the English school dis­trict’s own de­pots and the de­ploy­ment of buses.

When it comes to de­ter­min­ing me­chan­i­cal safety for all, Hall said the school board looks to the in­spec­tion sta­tion (garage) re­ports re­ceived twice a year and to the in­spec­tions by the reg­u­la­tor, Ser­vice NL.

The me­chan­ics’ in­spec­tion re­ports in­clude five car­bon copies, dis­trib­uted to five dif­fer­ent sets of eyes, with one be­ing in the school dis­trict’s files. And Ser­vice NL’s own ve­hi­cle in­spec­tions pro­vide re­as­sur­ance on any me­chan­i­cal con­cerns, he said.

“The in­de­pen­dent in­spec­tion by Ser­vice NL will un­cover is­sues when an of­fi­cial in­spec­tion sta­tion (garage) or a con­trac­tor is do­ing some­thing they’re not sup­posed to do,” he said.

The prov­ince has 227 Of­fi­cial In­spec­tion Sta­tions li­censed to deal with school buses. The charges an­nounced over the last six months re­late to four lo­ca­tions.

Yet the same six-month pe­riod a year ago did not in­clude a string of news items on charges tied to school buses. So what ex­plains the re­cent charges?

Hall did not have a de­fin­i­tive an­swer. He sug­gested the pub­lic is pay­ing more at­ten­tion to buses. One in­ves­ti­ga­tion, as al­ready re­ported, be­gan with a bus crash wherein no stu­dents were on the bus at the time. The Board asked Ser­vice NL to in­spect that bus and found more fol­low up re­quired.

The cur­rent gov­ern­ment in­creased the penal­ties for vi­o­lat­ing the reg­u­la­tions set for school bus in­spec­tion sta­tions, but the re­quire­ments them­selves are largely un­changed.

Ser­vice NL could not speak to spe­cific charges, be­yond what has al­ready been re­leased. A re­quest for the name of the bus com­pany served by Roche’s Au­to­mo­tive Ser­vices and Peter Roche —now fac­ing crim­i­nal charges — was de­nied.

How­ever, a state­ment spoke to the ques­tion of faith in the sys­tem.

“Par­ents and chil­dren who travel on school buses should have ev­ery con­fi­dence that the buses are safe,” it read. “School buses are held to an ex­tremely high stan­dard of me­chan­i­cal fit­ness, and are sub­ject to more rig­or­ous in­spec­tion re­quire­ments than any other ve­hi­cle op­er­ated on pro­vin­cial high­ways.”

That in­cludes Ser­vice NL re­views — by 31 trained high­way en­force­ment of­fi­cers — as well as the me­chan­i­cal in­spec­tion forms.

School bus op­er­a­tor Dave Cal­la­han said he sees it dif­fer­ently; with the last six months of al­le­ga­tions a sign of money prob­lems as likely as any­thing else.

“It’s some­thing I’ve been pre­dict­ing that was com­ing,” he said, claim­ing the ap­proach to con­tract­ing, through pub­lic ten­der, has re­sulted in com­pa­nies low-balling bids just to keep work in hand.

Ev­ery­thing from re­place­ment parts, to the pur­chase of new buses to re­fresh a fleet gets shoved to the back­burner in such cases, he said. On top of a short­age of cash, he sug­gested short­term con­tract­ing of­fers lit­tle to any bank ap­proached for a loan.

He painted the pic­ture of a cor­ner, one more and more com­pa­nies were sent into, pres­sur­ing the sys­tem. “There aren’t too many min­is­ters mak­ing th­ese de­ci­sions, or ADMs, or deputy min­is­ters go­ing to work ev­ery day in a 12-year-old ve­hi­cle,” he said, “but their kids and their grand­kids are.”

In­de­pen­dent MHA Paul Lane put a com­plaint on bus­ing, on be­half of Cal­la­han and some other op­er­a­tors, to the Cit­i­zens’ Rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The MHA has also ex­pressed con­cerns rang­ing from how bus routes are han­dled to me­chan­i­cal safety, calling for an all­party com­mit­tee. He said he wants to see Ser­vice NL out for bus in­spec­tions ear­lier in the year, ahead of school start­ing and not run­ning in­spec­tions into late Septem­ber, Oc­to­ber. And there was some­thing else. “Right now they have a sys­tem where bus own­ers can in­spect their own buses. They go to a me­chanic, or in some cases the bus own­ers ac­tu­ally own their own garage and have their own me­chanic,” he said, echo­ing the pro­vin­cial au­di­tor gen­eral, from a re­port pub­lished over a decade ago.

“They’re re­ally in­spect­ing them­selves. So I see ob­vi­ously a con­flict there,” Lane said.

The school board said it would not com­ment on the Ser­vice NL pol­icy al­low­ing it.

For its part, a Ser­vice NL rep said the gov­ern­ment in­spec- tions would iden­tify prob­lems not ad­dressed by pri­vate me­chan­ics, in a true case of fal­si­fied records.

But also, apart from com­pa­nies now charged, about 30 more bus com­pa­nies cur­rently op­er­ate their own in­spec­tion sta­tions and work with in­tegrity and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, The Tele­gram was told. “Pro­hibit­ing all school bus com­pa­nies from op­er­at­ing an Of­fi­cial In­spec­tion Sta­tion would be an un­just and im­proper pun­ish­ment to those op­er­a­tors,” the spokes­woman stated.

A change on the cur­rent pol­icy of al­low­ing the re­la­tion­ships would also af­fect the New­found­land and Labrador English School Dis­trict. The dis­trict em­ploys me­chan­ics for in­spec­tions of its own buses at mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions through­out the prov­ince.

Ser­vice NL per­forms checks on the dis­trict fleet the same as the rest, with re­sults in­cluded in a sum­mary now be­ing pub­lished on­line. The last re­port noted 340 dis­trict-owned buses were in­spected in the fall — more than any pri­vate school bus op­er­a­tor.

TC ME­DIA FILE PHOTO

Ser­vice NL re­mains con­fi­dent in the sound­ness of the sys­tem tasked with en­sur­ing school bus safety.

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