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Battle lines drawn

South Australia’s school bus operators have gone into battle with the Rann Government via Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond over contract procrastination

By David Goeldner | June 24, 2011

The association representing privately-run school bus operations in South Australia has launched an attack on the Rann Government over its continued delay in issuing new contracts to operators.

Back in 2006, the South Australian Government came up with a plan to rejuvenate the state’s mostly regional school bus fleet, split between services run by the Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS) and private operators contracted to the same department.

While the DECS ‘yellow buses’ are now being upgraded, private company operators still wait to have their contracts renewed.

DECS Minister Jay Weatherill was expected to sign off on the private contracts in February after tenders were called last year from private operators to run the services.

All privately run school bus services in South Australia were placed on the table to be renegotiated, which meant existing operators don’t know if they will get their contracts back – and the Bus and Coach Association of South Australia is fuming over the long delay in making the decisions affecting 275 contracts around the state.

The BCASA’s Executive Director Sonia St Alban says operators don’t know if they will get their contacts back, and is aware that some will miss out as a result of the Request for Proposal process determined by DECS.

St Alban is concerned that as each month goes by without a decision, vehicles go past the statutory 25-year serviceable life as a school bus.

“We have 275 private school bus services so all of those buses will reach their age limit over the next 12 to 18 months,” she says.

“About 12 buses required extension at the end of May, and as each month goes by more buses are added to the list.”

St Alban says exemptions have been made by the South Australian Government to extend buses over 25 years old to continue working school routes until the end of the year.

And as the months drag by many operators are now technically out of contract, working on temporary arrangements while the offers of new contracts are still sitting with DECS, further infuriating St Alban and the BCASA.

The matter came to a head on Thursday with the BCASA enlisting the support of SA’s Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond.

“We have a lot of attention being given to this by the opposition and the Liberal Party,” St Alban says.

“A lot of contractors are constituents in country areas held by the Liberal Party so we certainly have them on side and prepared to assist us.”

Within a few hours of Redmond raising the matter on Thursday, Education Minister Jay Weatherill was on the phone to St Alban seeking clarification.

“I had this discussion with the Minister who said it was in progress and it was happening gradually but I wasn’t given any timelines,” St Alban says.

“We were told a decision would be made today, we were told it would be last Friday and the Friday before – we’ve heard this all along.”

St Alban says her impression from Weatherill is that the Minister was not adequately briefed on the matter by his advisers.

“I don’t think the Minister was fully briefed, but I have had the opportunity to talk to him and he will advance this and make a decision,” she says.

“That’s all we are waiting for, to have the decisions made.”

Meanwhile, operators continue to ask the Association whether they will receive a contract or not.

“I have already spoken to the committee and quite a few of my members – we will be regrouping on Monday to work out our next strategy,” says St Alban.

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