Monday, September 20, 2010

Bathurst Tragedy: Right to Information request raises more questions than it answers

Minister of Education tells bus drivers to "volunteer"

New Brunswick Minister of Education Roland Haché refuses to pay professional bus drivers, who make $18.27 an hour, to drive the provincial fleet of 28, 21-passenger MFAVs, preferring volunteers who have taken a seven hour volunteer driver training program instead.

(Bathurst, NB - September 20, 2010) - A Right to Information request has revealed that a $100,000 volunteer driver education program developed for the New Brunswick Department of Education's fleet of 21 passenger Multi Function Activity Vehicles (MFAVs) has a drop out rate of more than 50%.

1. 153 of 287 registered participants never completed the course
2. The price tag for the course curriculum (developed by Safety Services New Brunswick of Fredericton) was $78,000.00 with an option to renew for two more years
3. The provincial fleet consists of a total of 28 Extra Curricular Actvity Vehicles / MFAVS for use by 14 Anglophone and Francophone districts.
4. Every francophone district in the province has at least one Extra Curricular Actvity Vehicle / MFAV.
5. Four anglophone districts 8, 10, 14 and 17 do not have a single Extra Curricular Actvity Vehicle / MFAV
6. Francophone District 5 (Nepisiquit Bathurst) has five Extra Curricular Actvity Vehicles / MFAVS.
7. Bathurst High School, which is part of the Anglophone District 15, has two Extra Curricular Actvity Vehicles / MFAVs.

Extra Curricular Activity Vehicles in NBA breakdown of extra curricular activity vehicles in New Brunswick by School District. Source: Department of Education's response to Right to Information request.

This and other information was included in a response from the NB Department of Education to two separate Right To Information requests by Isabelle Hains of Bathurst. Hains' son Daniel was one of six players with the Bathurst High School Phantoms basketball team who was killed when their 15 passenger van collided with a transport truck on January 12, 2008. (For copies of the response and a breakdown of the District MFAV ownership, click on the links at the bottom of this press release).

Mrs. Hains submitted the Right to Information requests in July when the province refused to answer questions she had about the costs of the Volunteer Driver Education Program and MFAV usage by the School Districts in 2009-2010.

Hains says that despite the 100 page response, "it is almost impossible to get a full picture of the success or failure of the program" because many of the questions were left unanswered and much of the documentation was redacted (blacked out).

Hains says her questions about the volunteer drivers, hours on the road, mileage and costs were not answered by the Department because the information is in the hands of High School Student Councils who pay the bills for the fleet's purchase, maintenance and usage. She said she is disappointed but not surprised that the Department is hiding behind the School District Superintendents, Principals and student-run Councils in refusing to answer these important questions about MFAVs.

"Now I have to submit the same questions to three more levels of bureaucracy and I don't have a very good feeling that their answers will be forthcoming any time soon," says Hains. "This isn't top secret information. If the province has nothing to hide, then the information should be readily available to the public."

Minister Says Professional Drivers Should "Volunteer"

The Bathurst High School Phantoms 21 passenger MFAVThis is one of two MFAVs that was donated to Bathurst High School following the January 12, 2008 collision. The cost of maintenance is paid for by the Bathurst High School Student Council, but it is actually owned by the province and operated by District 15 for Bathurst High School. Volunteer drivers (mothers, father, coaches and teachers) drive the MFAV after taking a seven hour Volunteer Drive Education Program offered by the Department of Education.

Following the Bathurst tragedy, 15 passenger vans were banned in New Brunswick and replaced with 21 passenger MVAVs. A Coroners Inquest in May 2009 recommended:

"Nothing less than a qualified Class 2 yellow school bus driver for all student travel to off site, extra curricular events. Teachers, coaches and parents as well as volunteers should not be driving children to off-site extra-curricular activities."

Education Minister Roland Haché has consistently refused to implement the Class 2 driver recommendation, saying it would be too expensive.

The Minister told Hains two weeks ago at his election headquarters in Beresford that he will "never never" pay professional school bus drivers to drive the MFAVs. Haché said bus drivers can "volunteer" to drive the vehicles, just like the parents, teachers, and coaches who took the volunteer driver training program offered by the province, despite the Coroner’s Jury recommendation.

However, Hains says that professional school bus drivers are not volunteers and they should be paid for their time, just like any other professional. She says it is hypocritical of the Minister to suggest that bus drivers who make $18.27 an hour should volunteer their time when he voted himelf an 85% hike in his pension and a 20% increase in his wage.

"Mr. Haché certainly does not hold the moral high ground on this issue," Hains said. "Volunteers should stick to selling chocolate bars and committee work and leave the driving to the professionals."

Hains says a typical extra-curricilar trip takes from six to 10 hours and would cost $182.70 to have a professional driver behind the wheel. "That's a small price to pay for the safety of children," she said.

Following the Coroners Inquest, the Department of Education consulted with stakeholders whom it claims rejected the jury's recommendation for "Nothing less than Class 2 Drivers". Mr. Haché has repeatedly cited the stakeholder's support for volunteer drivers as the reason why he will not pay professional drivers to transport students to extra-curricular activities.

Hains says that as far as she knows, none of the so-called stakeholders has ever been publicly identified and she questions whether any of them were professional drivers who are knowledgeable about student transportation issues.

"How can Mr. Haché base such an important decision about student transportation safety on the uninformed opinion of people who are not professional drivers?" asks Hains.

She says both the Ministers of Education, Roland Hache, and Minster of Transportation, Denis Landry, have a habit of ignoring professional opinion when it contradicts what they choose to believe, as was the case with last year's controversial winter tire issue that eventually led to a Transport Canada recommendation to use winter tires on all four axles.

On June 21, Hains met with Conservative Party MLAs Claude Landry (Education Critic) and Carl Urquhart (Public Safety Critic) to discuss the issue of Class 2 Drivers. Both MLAs expressed interest in the issue but asked for more information about the costs of operating the MFAVs as well as the rates for profesional bus drivers.

Conservative Party Leader David Alward was quoted today as saying that he would consider making Class 2 licences mandatory for drivers transporting students to extra-curricular activities. Hains said that's a big step forward and she has contacted Mr. Alward to confirm the statement.

"It took the Bathurst tragedy to get 15 passenger vans off the road in New Brunswick. Now we finally have the right vehicles and the right tires. The only thing left is professional drivers with Class 2 licences behind the wheels of the these MFAVs."

- 30 -

To access the Department of Education's Response to the Right to Information Inquest, click on the following links

NB Education Minister Roland Hache's Response to Right to Information Request #6 & 7 Regarding MFAVs

NB Education Minister Roland Hache's Response to Right to Information Request about MFAV Driver Education Program