Jeff Green | Jul 14, 2021

On June 30th, two family-owned school bus companies from North Frontenac, Dunham Transportation and Cox Transportation, sold out to Martin's Bus Lines of Napanee. The timing of the sale was no coincidence, as contracting for bus routes throughout the region will be subject to a new procurement process next year, pending a court challenge.

Dunham Transportation has been in the busing industry for over 20 years, Cox’s for longer than that.

Jen Cox’s father, Tom Sargeant, was teaching at Sharbot Lake High School in the early 1970’s when he was approached by the school’s superintendent. He was asked if he was interested in buying a bus and starting up a service, between Sharbot Lake and Sydenham, so students from 'the North' who needed courses that were only offered at Sydenham High School, would be able to get there and back each day.

He decided to take it on, and hired a driver to do the run because he was still teaching. Eventually, his wife, Wyn Sargeant, became the driver on the route. 

For about 50 years that route has been operated by the same company. For the past 31 years, Jen and Mitch Cox have been running Cox Bus lines, covering the Sydenham route, as well as several others.

In recent years the business of busing children to school has become more complicated. Not only have the technical requirements for buses changed, but also the training requirements for drivers. That has added costs in an industry where the price has been set by a formula that is out of their control.

Small bus companies, like Cox and Dunham Bus Lines, have been closing in recent years as the regional and multi-national companies have increased their market share.

Last fall, Tri-board Transportation, an arms-length busing consortium that oversees service for the Limestone, Hastings Prince Edward and Algonquin Lakeshore Catholic school boards, put out a “Request for Proposal” (RFP) document for school bus routes. The RFP was set to result in new contracts that would commence in the fall of 2022.

RFP processes across the province have resulted in closures of small companies, and a further concentration of the industry in the hands of larger companies, such as Stock and First Student Transportation.

Small busing companies say that they are at a disadvantage when compelled to compete for the bus routes that they have been operating for many years. For one thing, they cannot afford to lose because they have nowhere else to go, whereas the larger companies can just shift their resources to other locations. As well, the small companies do not have dedicated teams to complete the complicated RFP calculations.

Gord Taylor, the general manager for Tri-Board, said in November of 2020, that the Tri-Board RFP provided for opportunities for small companies to band together and bid on the routes, that were bundled together in the RFP, unlike an earlier RFP from Triboard in 2012. In 2012, the Independent School Bus Operators Association of Ontario, that Dunham, Cox, and Martin's Transportation are all part of, took Tri-Board to court and won, and the status quo system for contracting out bus routes has remained in place until now.

The school bus operators undertook a court challenge against the RFP again in early 2021,  and later in  spring Tri-Board announced that the RFP was being put off. For the 2022/23 school year, the existing contracts will remain in place.

When interviewed this week, Jen Cox said that the RFP provided an opportunity for Dunham and Cox bus lines to combine forces.

“It was something Mitch and I talked about with Steve and Jen Dunham,”  Jen Cox said, “maybe becoming one company, but in the end we both decided that it was time to seek a buyer. It has been very stressful for a few years now, and we were both ready to get out.”

The first, and only, buyer that they approached was Martin’s bus lines, which runs bus routes in Frontenac and Lennox and Addington. 

“We knew that our drivers did not want to drive for a large company, like Stock or First Student. It is hard enough to find drivers for bus routes because of the pay and the split hours, and getting drivers to travel to North and Central Frontenac from elsewhere would be impossible. Martin’s is a family run company. They are bigger than we are, for sure, but our drivers will be willing to work with them, we knew that.”

Ultimately, Jen Cox said, it made sense to sell their businesses now, when they have some value, rather than risk losing the contract through the RFP and effectively being shut down.

“It will give Martin’s a very strong chance to win the RFP, whenever it comes out, because the two other companies are no longer in the market. That will be good for our drivers, who want to work for a company that we all trust, and for the students and their families, who will still have local drivers taking them to and from school each day. That was important to us.”

Jen and Mitch Cox had been hoping to keep their charter business going, with a small number of buses, after selling the school bus routes.

Students in Sharbot Lake know Mitch Cox well, because for years he has driven them to all of the after school sports events, as well as charters for community groups and families, throughout Central and North Frontenac. But because they would have less than 5 buses on the road, they were not eligible for fleet insurance and insurance costs jumped substantially, to $16,000 per year for each bus.

“We had to let that go as well, because of insurance costs” said Jen, “which is not what Mitch wanted at all.”

While Mitch Cox will continue working at Camp Oconto, where he has already been working, in addition to working on the busing, Jen has taken on a new venture. She purchased the chip wagon in the parking lot of the Godfrey General store from the store’s owner, Laurie Love.

Jenny's Northern Grill has been very busy this summer, and there are plans to start up a new location at the Clar-Mill Hall in Plevna next summer, pending township approval.

“It's very busy,” she said, “but it is seasonal, so maybe this winter we will be able to do some snowmobiling, maybe even take a vacation. We did not get nearly what our bus company would have been worth if the RFP wasn't in place, so no retirement for us, but it was the right time anyway. It was pretty hard saying goodbye to the drivers, however. There were lots of tears.”

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