WEST CARLETON – Nearly two months after the start of the school year, West Carleton parents are still scrambling to get their kids to school, and in some cases, can’t even get their kids to school.
While the issue of the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) failing in its mandate to get Ottawa public and Catholic students safely to and from school has been slowly drifting to the back pages of the urban media, it is still a daily challenge for many parents and guardians in West Carleton tasked with the job the publicly funded OSTA has not done.
At the start of the school year, more than 9,000 Ottawa students were told they did not have a bus ride to school. The OSTA signed contracts with nine of 10 operators, but that one operator they did not sign, served west Ottawa, making the impact especially hard felt in West Carleton. While the issue seems to have peaked this year, if you follow the pages in the above link, you will learn it has been one affecting West Carleton since the start of COVID-19.
West Carleton Online spoke to three moms this week, all who still do not have full transportation to and from school this year.
“Parents are beyond frustrated and fed-up with this bussing fiasco,” Kinburn’s Julia Cheeseman, mom of a Grade 1 student who attends Stonecrest Elementary School, told West Carleton Online during an interview at the Carp branch of the Ottawa Public Library Tuesday (Oct. 24) before having to leave to pick her daughter up from school. “It’s difficult to plan our lives around the unreliable, unpredictable bussing service that OSTA is offering. We have spent hours of our lives now, waiting in line to pick our kids up, waiting at the end of the driveway for a bus that sometimes never shows up. If this keeps up we will be out in the increasingly dangerous situation of waiting on the shoulder of a major roadway to pick up our kids once the snow falls, situations in which there are plows on the roads spraying sand and rocks at our windows.”
OSTA announced earlier this week, it would not be reimbursing parents and guardians who have had to transport their children to school.
“As a taxpayer, why am I paying for a service I am not getting?” Cheeseman said. “We need resolution now. We need actions now.”
Sarah Dafoe is a parent of 10 children, eight of which are still in school and her two youngest, not old enough yet. Her school-aged kids also attend Stonecrest and sometimes some of their kids have had a bus, and other times they haven’t.
“I have five kids currently being affected,” Dafoe told West Carleton Online Wednesday (Oct. 25). “My older three were without a bus for the first four-and-a-half weeks. My younger five school aged children are now affected.”
Dafoe has a Grade 7 (age 12), Grade 5 (age 10), Grade 3 (age eight), Grade 1 (age six) and junior Kindergarten (age 4) child. When Davoe’s children don’t have a bus, they don’t go to school.
Their morning bus has been canceled every day since Oct. 16.
“Their afternoon bus seems to be cancelled on Fridays since Oct. 13, or 15 minutes late every day,” Dafoe said. “My children are not able to attend school now as my husband is the sole driver in our family. The school is not within a distance to walk. There are no funds on our end to be able to pay a personal driver to transport our kids, finances are tight, so they now miss out on their education. My husband starts work at 5 a.m. so he is able to be home in the afternoons to take some of our older kids to their after-school jobs.”
Dafoe says she is trying to provide teaching home, but with such a wide variety of grades, that is a pretty big challenge in itself.
I, myself am trying to do home learning for my kids but juggling five different grades while also caring for our younger two can be difficult at times,” she said. “The kids would prefer to be in school, learning amongst their peers. They miss their friends and socializing with them.”
Dunrobin-area mom Sarah Bowen has a crew of six-year-old triplets all attending Stonecrest Elementary School Grade 1.
“Our bus route of two years was cut in half leaving us with a new bus for the morning and no bus in the afternoon,” Bowen told West Carleton Online Wednesday (Oct. 25). “The afternoon bus was canceled due to having no contract. it was a Premier Bus and as we know all Premier Busses were cancelled because OSTA failed to retain contracts with them.”
Bowen says the disorganization at the OSTA is causing its own fare share of problems.
“The OSTA general manager (Vicky Kyriaco) has been on multiple leaves of absence since May,” she said. “I have reached out to OSTA multiple times by phone, online forms and email, the school and to our Local MPPs and councillors. We have four buses that drive by us and are all basically empty. I was told multiple times by OSTA that returning our old bus to its old route or to even have any of those four buses stops used to consolidate to add students would be special treatment.”
Bowen says her family and at least six others in her neighborhood used to use the bus stop.
“All four buses have plenty of open seats and drive by us morning and afternoon,” Bowen said. “Yet, we have no afternoon bus and are on the long-term cancellation list. We even offered to walk to other bus stops that are serviced by them, only to be told that would also be special treatment.”
Bowen says OSTA needs to use common sense when figuring out these issues.
“OSTA needs to be required to hire drivers to consult on routes,” she said. “There is an extreme lack of efficiency with in OSTA and it starts primarily at the routes. Drivers are the ones who understand routes and they are the ones who operate them. Many for decades. They should be involved in the whole process. Many drivers have tried numerous times to help only to be ignored. Drivers should be paid more and for the total time they are working not just key to key. The Ministry of Education set a minimum pay of $23, why is OSTA not adhering to that?”
Picking up her children from school is a time-consuming process which Bowen feels also has an element of risk to it.
“I arrive 40 minutes prior to my children even getting out of school so that I may pick them up in a timely fashion as to not affect their home life and schedule,” she said. “Our schedule is hectic and maintaining it provides stability for the children and frankly us as parents. I own and operate my own business as well as being a hard-working stay at home mom. The time spent away from both has definitely added stress to our family and affected my business. i am fortunate to live relatively close to our school, however this is unsustainable for so many families in my community who are deeply struggling with this crisis.”
Bowen says arriving earlier also helps provide an extra layer of safety during a hectic time-period at the school.
“It’s to ensure that I’m in the front or near the front of the line to proceed to pick-up as the line is long and I do not feel safe or comfortable parking on the banks of the roads and walking in to pick up my children,” Bowen said. “Because having to return back to my car with three six-year-olds can be quite hairy and possibly dangerous, and I don’t want to take that risk.”
OSTA has not given a date as to when it will have this issue rectified, and that is causing more worry for Bowen.
“I can honestly say as the colder months approach the safety of cars parked on the banks of the road and having to spend extra time to prepare vehicles will only increase the stress, work and financial burden for folks in the community dealing with this crisis,” she said. “What needs to happen now is for a resolution for solution.”
Bowen says not all of these issues should fall on the heads of OSTA, and the province has some culpability in the lack of safe school transportation.
“First of all, it is not in the OSTA wheelhouse to be compensating parents and guardians,” she said. “Compensation to the families affected by the Ottawa student transportation crisis needs to come from the Ministry of Education (MOR). The MOE is lead by Minister Stephen Lecce, who has publicly announced the MOE has a reserve transition fund of $89 million that came from the changes the MOE imposed on the Student Transportation Grant that funds OSTA. The MOE has left OSTA with a deficit and held back a reserve transition fund even though OSTA showed a 2.5 per cent increase in ridership. The MOE reassured families in Ontario these reserve transition funds are available if any consortium needs them to overcome any type of shortfall.”
OSTA reports a $5 million deficit.
“The MOE needs to use the $89 million in reserve funds to ensure OSTA has the appropriate funds to serve all students with proper transportation now and in the future as well as provide families with compensation,” Bowen said. “The funds the MOE have in reserve is taxpayers’ money. The MOE needs to be held accountable as they played a key role in allowing this crisis to happen by not creating accountability around the funds they provided to the school boards and OSTA for student transportation in previous years. Ottawa families deserve, compensation from the MOE. It’s time for Minister Stephen Lecce, Carleton MPP Goldie Ghamari, and the Ministry of Education, to step up and be accountable for mishandling this situation.”