MANY private school transport operators will no longer be in business when schools reopen in September.
The warning comes as financial support has been provided to bus operators who are contracted under the School Transport Scheme. Others providing the same service, who were contracted directly by a school or a group of parents, have been left behind without any help.
Gavin Friel of Michael Friel Coaches said the anomaly will have long-term negative consequences for hundreds of jobs in the industry unless it is addressed by Minister for Transport Shane Ross.
“There’s four of us (private school transport operators) affected in Letterkenny alone. Between us we would take twelve to thirteen hundred pupils to school every day but since March 12, when schools finished, we’ve been effectively left with no income,” Mr Friel said.
Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan has announced that families will receive refunds for school transport fees for periods of schools closures.
The Minister also confirmed that bus operators who are contracted under the School Transport Scheme will also receive State funding.
“Bus Éireann contractors received one hundred per cent funding for the first two weeks, cut to fifty per cent up until the school holidays at the end of June but Minister Halligan is refusing to enter into any talks with the private operators – leaving an unfair playing pitch.
“Even though everything is parked up some of these school bus operators are still getting paid while others, like us, are effectively being put out of business,” Mr Friel warned.
Michael Friel Coaches is responsible for taking 275 children to and from school in Letterkenny every day. They are one of 390 operators affected nationwide.
When schools do reopen, thousands of children and their parents will rely on these bus services to bring their children to and from school, and so it’s important they are given the support they need to weather this difficult economic time.
“We’ve paid out 8,000 euro on insurance alone this year while it will cost upwards of 3,000 per bus to get them ready again for the new school year and yet my diary is clear until the end of August. There’s no bookings whatsoever. No one knows what will happen come September but, nationally, it’s estimated that 38 per cent of us will no longer be in business by then,” he said.
“Bus Éireann contractors continue to receive fifty per cent funding until the end of June and yet we’re not getting a penny. This will put private operators off the road. We’ll be on our knees come September,” he warned.
Even when restrictions are lifted buses which can normally carry up to 53 passengers will be limited to fourteen seats.
“Schools re-opened in New Zealand last week and they didn’t worry about social distancing on the school buses. They know exactly who’s on the bus at any given time with regard to contact tracing but we won’t have to worry about that if we’re no longer in business.
“Minister Halligan has decided to pay the Bus Éireann contractors while Bus Éireann has refunded ticket money to parents so this is effectively using tax payers money to distort the market. It’s totally unfair to private school bus operators.
“Schools closed on March 12 and we haven’t been paid since. We have the same outgoings and costs,” he said.
“All we’re looking for is a level playing pitch. At the moment the Bus Éireann contractors are on an aircraft carrier while we’re in canoes,” he added.
The Federation of Transport Operators (FOTO) and Sinn Féin TD for Meath East Darren O’Rourke have both called on the Minister for Transport Shane Ross to provide support and assistance to all school transport operators and not leave some behind due to technicalities.
“I have written to the Minister for Transport highlighting his unfair treatment of some school transport operators, and have called on him to remedy this situation and provide support to maintain these services.
“In what is a blatantly unfair situation, financial support has now been provided to those bus operators who are contracted under the School Transport Scheme. Yet those providing the same service, who were contracted directly by a school or a group of parents, have been left behind without any help,” Deputy O’Rourke said.
“As a State, we should be encouraging this method of transport, as it takes a significant amount of car journeys off the road every day and reduces dangerous congestion outsides schools.
“I believe this short-sighted policy of not helping these bus companies through this difficult time will have long-term negative consequences, such as fewer companies available to provide this essential service going forward, leaving many parents in a very difficult position come September.
“Minister Ross needs to act now to maintain these school routes and protect jobs in the sector.”