Trustee Killens upset school buses not cancelled during inclement weather

Tom Sasvari

The Recorder

MANITOULIN—A Manitoulin trustee with the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) says he and many parents are upset after school buses for students in the Sudbury area were cancelled on Thursday of last week (because of the miserable weather conditions), while buses on the Island continued to run. However, the executive director of the Sudbury Student Services Consortium (SSSC), which provides transportation to all students within the RDSB, said the call to not cancel buses on the Island came after clear weather was delivered early in the morning by local bus operators-managers.

“No one should have been travelling on the roads on Thursday,” stated trustee Larry Killens in an interview with the Recorder last Friday. “Even the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) was on the radio telling everyone to stay off the roads, and for buses already gone out that they should turn around. I am very upset with the SSSC, they are in charge of the safety of our kids, but I’ve been receiving calls from people saying they can’t see anything out in front of them on the road.”

Mr. Killens said the OPP had been providing reports on the Island 100.7 radio station telling everyone to stay off the road because of the extreme drifts and blowing snow and whiteouts making visibility nil. “This is the second time they have cancelled the Sudbury buses in the past few days because of weather conditions, but in the meantime the buses on the Island are still going, it makes no sense,” said Mr. Killens. He pointed out in looking at the Environment Canada website, storms were forecast at 5 am (last Thursday), they (SSSC) say they are contacted by snowplow operators and bus drivers, as well as the MTO, Ministry of Environment and the police, but I’ve been told this wasn’t the case this time.”

“I’ve had calls from 17 parents on the Island who are upset. One of the parents said when they called the Consortium, the person on the other line hung up on them,” continued Mr. Killens. He said in some cases school buses turned around when they found it was unsafe and went back.

“I’m saying they (SSSC) have a good bus service policy in place for bad weather conditions, but they are obviously not following them if they have busses in Sudbury not running, while they are here on the Island, with the same weather conditions,” Mr. Killens added.

Renee Boucher, with the SSSC, told the Recorder last Friday, “we have bus operators, drivers, and safety managers in all locations we provide transportation. The people in each area report to me as early as 4:30 am if there are any concerns with the weather conditions. In talking to some operators and managers, while there were some concerns in Sudbury and Espanola, at that time there were no concerns on the Island—everything was fine and there were no concerns.”

Ms. Boucher said the decision to cancel school busses is made prior to 6 am. “Yesterday (Thursday, January 19) I made contacts in Espanola and Manitoulin Island to make sure the weather had not turned bad. At 6:45 am, for Espanola and Manitoulin we got the reports from the roads crew there were no visibility, or road concerns due to the weather. For Espanola the weather conditions were clear, and on Manitoulin it was just starting to snow some, but other than that the conditions were clear. In Sudbury the bad weather was hitting in many parts and there was an issue also of very low visibility.”

However, the weather conditions changed on Manitoulin and Sudbury at basically the same time, said Ms. Boucher. “For instance the Gore Bay area was being hit with high winds and snow, and by 7:30 am we were getting reports some buses were going to be delayed on the Island and that some specific routes could be cancelled. We had three cancellations on Manitoulin because of the weather conditions at 7:30 am, but it was too late to make a blanket cancellation for the Island before the bad weather set in. Delays due to weather conditions are not unusual for the Island.”

“We continue monitoring the weather conditions during the day,” she said pointing out, “we did receive a lot of phone calls from parents, and teachers on the Island, but we did follow the process in place. At the time the buses were to go out the roads crews, and MTO crews were reporting there were no issues.”

“It is at these times I wish I did have a crystal ball instead of having to make a judgment call at a particular time,” said Ms. Boucher, noting, “parents are going to be upset if we cancel the school buses or not, but we have to follow the process in place.”

“I can assure the parents, schools and bus operators all decisions made are with the safety of the students in mind,” stated Ms. Boucher. “At 6:45 am there was no issue with the roads, they were fine, visibility was good.” She pointed out when busses are cancelled local-area media are contacted, and it is posted on the school board website.

In a subsequent letter to Ms. Boucher, Mr. Killens wrote, “I make this comment as a trustee for the Manitoulin and speak only for the district of Manitoulin. My comments do not reflect the position of the RDSB but my own. I have just finished a large round of phone calls to stakeholders in regards to our road and weather conditions on the Island pre-school time January 19, 2012.”

“I have requested the radio station to save and forward to me a radio interview that morning, pre-bell time, with the Traffic Safety Officer for the OPP who is on record pleading with people to stay off the roads for the entire day,” wrote Mr. Killens. “I, like you, visited the Environment Canada website and this storm could be seen moving in around 5 am. This is one process, I am informed, is done as a pro-active check for road safety for our buses.”

“I called area principals, two of which expressed concern for the children who were on their way to school in such weather,” wrote Mr. Killens, who said, “this is a repeat of last year, Sudbury buses cancelled, Manitoulin running and at the end of the day, buses on the Island in the ditch and minor injuries to students. As with last year, the police advised at that time not to travel and again today, I personally heard the police making this same plea.”

“I have to this point in time answered calls from 17 different worried and concerned parents/grandparents, some of which advised they called the Consortium to voice concerns,” continued Mr. Killens. “I send this letter to express my displeasure and concern with the apparent lack of care being taken in the area I serve. Our local bus drivers are to be highly commended for dealing with such hazards. They are a credit to their employers who train and hire them, in our case A.J. Bus Lines and Brown’s bus line. I am expected by the parents as a trustee to voice the concerns of the people of Manitoulin.”

“It, through repeat incidents like this, indicates to me your attention to planning or assessing a situation needs urgent work,” said Mr. Killens. “Please understand, I do not submit this constructive advice without thought and research and benefit of personal experience. I have life experience in such difficult matters of forecasting out of norm events on an even larger scale. It is not difficult here to see all the warning signs were present just not sought out or heeded. The appropriate well worn expression here is called for in a big way, ‘err on the side of safety’.”

“Having done my homework, I can say for certain, important calls were not made as we were told done on a routine basis as pointed out to us by our Superintendent of Finance,” wrote Mr. Killens. “I checked with the police, I checked with area roads departments. I also called some, but not all bus drivers are on your call list and they confirmed they were called and when asked issued safety concerns due to weather. Environment Canada forecasts were available pre-school times as well as police assessment. All buses have two-way communications in them and can be turned around in an instant no matter how complicated your pick up and drop off schedule is.”

“I have received several emails from parents and stakeholders as testament to my concerns being brought forward to you on their behalf,” said Mr. Killens. “Your immediate attention to this specific problem is appreciated. I have no doubt in my mind that your sole purpose and direction is the safety of our children. We just have to fix a problem that has raised its ugly head, three too many times. Forecasts of snow squalls and high winds, 25-30 centimetres of snow, were present.”