With the first day of school less than a week away, there are still parents in Maple Ridge who either don’t know how they will get their children to school, or are unhappy that they will now face long commutes.
Bus parent advocates are frustrated, because the provincial government has offered school boards additional funding, with the proviso that bus service be improved.
Children coming from the easternmost reaches of the district will be facing hour-long bus rides, and some will now walk for up to 45 minutes to get to their new bus stop.
There are students who face a combined half-hour walk and one-hour bus ride, each way.
The district has combined four bus routes going to Garibaldi secondary and Whonnock elementary into two, trying to create a more efficient system. The remaining two buses are so full that there will not be room for many, if any, courtesy riders, Anita Brierley said.
The latter are students who live within the walking limits, but would like to ride the bus.
Brierley said there are children who have always been courtesy riders who are now being refused.
“They’re not improving service, which is what they’re supposed to do,” said Brierley.
“Everyone’s ride time has increased.”
“It’s not in keeping with what anyone expected,” added Pascale Shaw. “It’s like a bad dream.”
Brierley said the province made $186,000 in new funding available to this district with two conditions – it improve bus service, and no bus fees be charged to students.
Before the new funding was announced, the board was set to charge parents $215 per student for bus service.
Brierley said the district’s more efficient plan will not accommodate new students.
“Anybody moving into the area is not going to be able to get on the bus. They’re full to the brims,” she said.
Inevitably, in a large district, new students will show up at the bus stop, she said.
“What are you going to do? Leave the kid at the side of the road?” she asks.
Brierley said the district should not be expected to run half-empty buses, but she believes it has gone too far in streamlining the Whonnock area routes. That area is not conducive to pedestrian traffic, with no sidewalks and wildlife in the area.
The changes the board has introduced to the one-year pilot to access the $185,990 in additional provincial funding are significant, said Irena Pochop, of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district.
“To access the provincial funding, our district eliminated annual fees entirely for all eligible riders,” she said. “In addition, we will be accommodating courtesy riders at a fee of $315 per child per year, where there is room. It is important to note that courtesy rider requests are declined only in cases where the bus that is running on the route is at capacity or when there is no bus route to the school requested.”
The district will ensure the new transportation model is sustainable by achieving a high utilization rate for each bus, she said.
“This means that we build the routes only after all eligible riders have registered, and accommodate late registrants and courtesy riders only where there is space. This optimization of our transportation service necessarily means fewer routes.
The board’s average utilization average is 94 per cent, with 271 registered riders. Any savings achieved will be invested in enhanced student services, as was the recommendation of provincial government.
“We are currently working on building bus routes with pick-up and drop-off locations that are as convenient as possible, and on reducing the walking distance for our riders as much as we can,” Pochop said. “We expect to be making additional adjustments before these routes are finalized on Sept. 2, in part to address the feedback we receive from parents as we communicate with them our draft routes, and in part because some families have moved and have not updated their current address in the parent portal.”
The complaints are the latest in a year-long lobby by parents to retain bus service in the district. The school board had announced it would cease all bus service in order to trim $650,000 from its budget. Parents wrote education ministry officials, their MLAs and protested in public with placards.
When Victoria restored $630,000 in provincial funding to the district on June 1, the board offered a new scaled-down service with a $260,000 budget, and bus fees rising from $215 per student to $416.
On Aug. 4, the board announced that fees would not increase, and that it wants the system to succeed.
A week later, the province announced the new $14.7 million School Transportation Fund, with the local board’s share being $186,000.