The wheels on the bus go round-and-round, but they cost a lot of money. Okay, well that isn’t how the song really goes, but it does describe the effect transportation costs are having on two local school boards.

The Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB), and the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) are both posting deficits for the 2017-2018 period because of increased transportation costs.

The news of red ink comes as trustees on each board recently received the year-end financial statements for the previous school year. The UCDSB went $9.5 million over budget on transportation in 2017-2018. The amount the board had originally budgeted was $25.7 million. The amount budgeted for the present school year is $27.7 million, which is a $2-million or eight per cent increase from 2017-2018.

Transportation spending for the CDSBEO went $5.8-million over-budget in 2017-2018. The board set aside $14.1 million for transportation that year.

In a statement jointly issued by both boards, the reason for increased transportation costs is blamed on a recently-imposed arbitration order following a review of the contract the two school boards have with Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario (STEO), the Prescott-based consortium that coordinates bus and accessible transportation for students in both boards.

According to UCDSB Chair Jeff McMillan, trustees are concerned about the higher-than-expected costs.

CDSBEO Associate Director Bonnie Norton said the arbitration resulted from bus companies stating they were not receiving competitive rates from STEO for their services. Norton said the issue was resolved but for confidentiality reasons, could not give further details of those proceedings and their outcome.  She did note though that the extra costs the boards have incurred for transportation, even though they have been applied to the 2017-2018 budget, also cover retroactive costs dating back to the 2016-2017 school year as well.

STEO was originally created to help each school board save money on transportation by having buses and routes shared. In many Eastern Ontario communities, students attending public and Catholic schools ride the same bus together.

School bus companies provide services under contract with STEO.  In years past, school boards entered into direct transportation contracts with local providers depending on community needs and logistics. The Ministry of Education has since moved to a Request for Proposal (RFP) model that has shut out smaller, local companies who could not compete with the large operators.

The RFP approach reduced the selection of bus companies transportation agencies like STEO could choose, which in turn reduced competition in pricing for the service. The issue was the subject of a review in 2016 on the RFP method that recommended a series of regulatory and policy changes to make procuring school bus transportation more competitive economically for school boards and service providers.

Norton said changes in competition and how busing services are procured are “not necessarily” the main reason for what led to the arbitration though.

STEO General Manager Janet Murray said,“We haven’t seen any significant decrease in service providers.”

Murray said STEO currently has 23 providers right now — consisting of everything from regular yellow school buses to vans or individual transportation for students with accessibility needs, or for those who live in remote areas not served by regular bus routes.

According to Murray, there were 25 transportation companies providing STEO services two years ago, and now there are 23.  She said the decrease occurred because two companies were sold to ones that already were operating in the region.

CDSBEO Chair Todd Lalonde said it is difficult to make any further cuts to transportation to keep costs down.

“We are hearing from the public that we have gone as far as we can to cut costs in this area,” he said.