College bus companies at stake in Montreal attributable to contract disputes
Montreal children may not see a yellow bus on their street when they head back to school in less than three weeks, after school bus contracts expired back in June.
Not a single contract in the city has been renewed between private bus companies and school boards for the new academic year starting Aug. 29.
The reason is simple: there’s not enough money to keep the school buses running.
Quebec’s Ministry of Education raised the school bus budget by 6.7 per cent since 2017, according to Andrew Jones, president of Transport Scolaire Élite and Autobus Beaconsfield.
However, bus operators need a budget increase of 35 per cent on the island of Montreal, he said.
Rising operating costs make it difficult to make a profit and increase the drivers’ wages. The prices of bus parts have gone up by a third, while the cost of diesel nearly doubled in the past year.
The ministry says it is investing $30 million per year to “attract and retain” the drivers of school buses and minivans, on top of an additional $100-million package to support the school network in this situation.
“We are confident that we will be able to provide our students with a safe and quality service as of the next school year,” said Esther Chouinard, the ministry’s spokesperson.
But the ministry is still not meeting the funding demands after almost nine months of negotiations, said the school bus operator.
“We’re hoping that the ministry will hear us out in time. What we’re asking for is 100 per cent justifiable: we want to be able to pay our drivers a decent salary,” said Jones.
He says the bus drivers’ annual salary is less than $25,000 since they are not paid during the summer break.
Their hourly wage is between $17 and $18, and Jones believes it’s not enough to make up for the duty of safely bringing dozens of children to and from school every day.
The Federation of National Trade Unions (CSN), the main union representing school bus drivers in Quebec, is negotiating that bus drivers earn $25 an hour.
In the meantime, the start of the new school year is shaping up to be “critical,” according to the Quebec Association of School Executives (AQCS).
“Without school transportation, many students will have no alternative to attend school. This will only accentuate the vulnerability of many areas,” the AQCS stated in its opinion on the draft budget rules for 2022-23.
As of now, about 2,500 contracts are not renewed in Greater Montreal, said Jones. Despite wanting to resume operations, his yellow buses won’t hit the road on the first day of school if his five-year contract is not negotiated in time.
The new agreement would provide school bus services for Quebec children until 2027.