Too cool for school

A regional Queensland operator says country kids keep missing out on air-con rides to school while the cap on bus funding stays low

Too cool for school
Too cool for school

By David Goeldner | May 19, 2011

A regional Queensland school bus operator is calling for the funding limit – or ‘cap’ – for new or replacement vehicles used to service Government school bus contracts to be raised in line with southern states.

South Bundy Buses Manager and former QBIC School Services Chairman Richard Hayes, pictured, says the Queensland cap is too low when compared against higher funding levels for NSW and Victoria.

"In Queensland the cap is under where it should be by about $20,000," he says.

"And that $20,000 makes it difficult to put a vehicle on the road."

Hayes says that will it might not seem like a significant sum, the multiplying effect across a fleet of school buses can be considerable.

"When you multiply $20,000 across ten vehicles that’s an awful lot of money to fund, and that’s money out of the operator’s pocket to provide a service."

The cap is the allowable limit the operator can spend on a new school bus across five different categories that the Queensland Government will fund over a ten year period.

The caps are reviewed annually by the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads.

Hayes says a mitigating factor reducing the cap limit for Queensland school buses is the non-inclusion of air-conditioning.

"Queensland doesn’t have air-conditioning included in the cap, whereas NSW and Victoria do," he says.

In Queensland, air-conditioning is funded separately on a pro-rata basis to 40 percent of the value of the air-conditioning unit for small school buses and 50 percent for large school buses.

"But you get nothing over the life of the vehicle to operate the air-conditioning, even though contractually you are required to operate the air-conditioning," Hayes says.

"If you wish to purchase a bus and it’s air-conditioned it’s hard to understand why the operator would be funding air-conditioning out of their own pocket."

Hayes says he has continually drawn to the attention of Queensland Transport that the cap is too low and has sent several submissions through a series of annual cap review processes.

"Many submissions have been put to Queensland Transport and all have come back with two letters written across the bottom – N and O," Hayes says.

Hayes says the bus supply side of the industry continues to bundle vehicles with air-conditioning as a standard inclusion, making it difficult to buy a bus without air-con.

"And it’s also hard to get a non-air-conditioned vehicle under the purchase price cap," he says.

Hayes operates 13 school contracted vehicles, with just two of his fleet air-conditioned.

"We don’t want to continue to buy air-conditioned vehicles, but its becoming harder to buy a non-air-conditioned vehicle," he says.

Hayes also believes there is disparity in who gets air-conditioning and who doesn’t between the urbanised south-east corner of Queensland and the rest of the state.

"There is a perception that kids in the ‘bush’ aren’t as valued as kids in the city," he says.

"If you are in the city your kids get to travel in an air-conditioned vehicle, fully funded by TransLink."

Hayes also believes the Queensland Government sees school bus operators as being willing and able to fund the difference in operating costs, and that the plethora of small ‘Mum and Dad’ operations allows this situation to continue.

There are about 550 contracted school bus operators in Queensland with most operating between one and four buses.

"Operators with more than four vehicles are in the minority," says Hayes.

"There would only by about 35 school operators across Queensland with more than four vehicles contracted to the department," he says.

As Hayes sees it, the sheer weight of numbers in favour of the ‘Mum and Dad’ operators means engagement with the wider school bus sector on the school bus funding cap issue has been difficult to resolve.

"Those smaller family-based operations just absorb these extra costs – but it’s very hard to do that in the long term," Hayes says.

He says it’s been hard to engage with the broader community unless there is a particular issue about wanting air-conditioning.

"And parents couldn’t care what the price of a bus is – they just want to see a bus turn up."

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