Territory hires new school bus operator

Yukon's Department of Education is changing the way it hires companies to operate the territory's school buses.

Yukon’s Department of Education is changing the way it hires companies to operate the territory’s school buses.

Standard Busing was brought on this week to take over after Takhini Transport’s contract was terminated two years into a five-year deal. The territory says it pulled the plug over concerns about the company’s safety and operations.

“I think what we can say now is we’ve learned from that and we’ll be following a value driven contract and a quality driven contract in the future,” education spokesperson Ronuk Modha said yesterday.

That means the department will focus on more than just the bottom line when it awards its next contract. Until now, the rule was that if busing companies were able to meet the territory’s basic requirements, the contract went to the lowest bidder.

That’s how Standard lost out to Takhini in 2013 by about $1 million. Takhini’s $14 million contract was supposed to cover five years.

It remains unclear how much it will cost the government to make this switch now. The contract hasn’t been signed yet, so the department can’t release the number, Modha said.

Standard has agreed to the same amount it would have received for the final three years of the term, had its original bid been accepted, he said.

But that’s not the only bill the government will be paying. When Standard lost the contract in 2013, most of its buses were sent to other branches around the country. Now, 55 brand new buses will be coming north and the government will be footing the bill to transport them.

The department will also pay “depreciation costs” because the cost of buses has increased over the last two years, Modha said.

No one is saying exactly what led to Takhini losing the contract. But an access-to-information request by the Yukon NDP recently uncovered a July 2014 letter to the company from Val Royle, then deputy minister of education, which says Takhini Transport had failed to meet its contractual requirements in a variety of ways.

That includes not having buses serviced and repaired by a certified mechanic and not meeting certification requirements.

Out of 77 drivers, the company didn’t provide proof of RCMP checks for eight, first aid certification for 15, defensive driving training for 23 and “smart driver for school bus” training for 21. They didn’t have proof of road tests for 11 drivers and assertive discipline training for 13.

The company was given about a month to address these concerns. The department won’t say how many were fixed.

An independent investigator’s report completed for the Department of Education around the same time as Royle’s letter outlines many of the problems and how the department tried to get them fixed. It also notes problems with the company’s website and issues with the age of the buses they were trying to use.

The report doesn’t always reflect well on the department.

In December 2013 a Yukon Education official told Takhini it was OK not to have thermal blankets for all the kids on rural routes, even though the contract said that was a requirement, the report says.

“Not necessarily one per each child on the bus but one per child for the kids that are on the longest,” the official told the bus company.

“Perhaps a number like 6-10 would be a good number.”

In February 2014 a government official agreed to let Takhini Transport pick seven of the eight buses that were supposed to get “unscheduled” inspections.

Not surprisingly, the company picked newer models.

“This introduced contractor bias eliminating the objectivity and transparency of the process,” the report says.

Modha said the government has spoken to staff and something like that will never happen again.

“Primarily, our big thing is safety. So we’ll be looking really closely at making sure all of our safety requirements are addressed,” he said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at