Despite parent protests, regular school bus service will be cut starting in September.
The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School Board passed its 2016-2017 preliminary budget of $135 million on Wednesday, cutting the district’s $650,000 transportation budget, which gives 300 students rides to school.
Pascale Shaw said she felt sick. She is one of the parents who has actively opposed the cut since it was announced in April 2015. She led parents in public protests, organized a lobby group on Facebook, wrote and met with local and provincial politicians.
“It’s exhausting. I’m flabbergasted, really. I understand they have decisions to make, but there’s no safety net for these families,” she said. “There’s 300 families who are going to be devastated by this.”
There have been 370 students riding buses, but the board says only 300 qualify for the transportation subsidy under the distance guidelines.
“You don’t take something away before there is a plan in place. There’s no plan in place,” said Shaw.
The board, however, found $120,000 to put toward the problem.
Of that, $100,000 will fund local agencies to provide before-and-after school programs in areas affected by discontinuation of bus service.
A coordinator’s salary will be covered in part by a grant from the United Way, and the school district has partnered with United Way to hire and fund a community connections and healthy living program manager.
Shaw said that will not be helpful to many affected families.
“Before-and-after-school care is not a solution for parents who can’t get their kids to school. I’m so disappointed with this decision.”
The board currently charges a student transportation fee of $215 per year, but there are low income families who receive a transportation subsidy. Those parents will now be able to apply for a transportation subsidy equal to the fees they are being charged.
The board said this money could be used for public transit, taxi, carpooling or other transportation expenses. A fund of $20,000 has been set up, and will be reviewed in 2018.
The board had been subsidizing bus students at an annual rate of $1,500 per year for those riding in nine 48-seat buses, and $1,000 per year for students in two 54-seat buses.
Six of the seven trustees read from prepared statements critical of the provincial government’s education funding.
Former board chair Ken Clarkson was the only trustee to vote against the budget, saying it was a protest of the government deliberately under-funding public education, and that those cuts devalue educators and children.
“In my eight years as a trustee, we have closed two schools, and in the past three years we have made over $10 million in cuts. We know we have to make more cuts next year and the year after that. The funding we received from the provincial government is not sustainable or predictable, which makes long-term planning impossible,” said Clarkson. “It’s so convoluted, so complicated, anyone can say anything and feel vindicated, as a local MLA’s recent comments attest.”
He referenced Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton’s recent statements that he board has received funds from Victoria, called holdback funding, during the school year, and has accumulated a surplus of $4.6 million that it can use for discretionary spending.
His fellow trustees noted that if the board fails to pass a balanced budget, they will be fired by Victoria and an education ministry appointee would make budget decisions.
Board chair Mike Murray said in his five years on the board, it has cut 70 staff beyond what would be required for declining enrolment. He said some employees lost wages through extended spring break, and the board has taken measures such as increased rental rates for schools and charging fees for bussing.
He said the bus service would not have to be cut if not for three “surprises” that included the administrative savings mandate to cut $1.34 million from the annual operating budget, cover $650,000 per year for a new internet service mandated by government, and cover the cost of wage increases for non-unionized staff.
“On top of this, government continues to ignore increased B.C. Hydro, MSP and several other inflationary costs in their annual allocations,” Murray said.
Trustee Dave Rempel didn’t have a written speech, but said this is his 19th budget, and none have adequately funded education. He said three different political parties have served in Victoria during his time as a trustee and “all three short changed education in terms of funding.”
Shaw said parents will continue to lobby for bus service.
“We can’t stop. We need to continue to lobby the government, and make sure they are going to providing funding for transportation that cannot be used for anything else,” said Shaw.
• The board serves approximately 14,000 students.
• The district projects operating budget shortfalls in each of the next three years: $340,000 for 2016-2017, $680,000 for 2017-2018 and $1.07 million in 2018-2019.
• The board receives 93 per cent of its revenue, $125 million, from the Education Ministry. Six per cent, or almost $8 million, comes from tuition.
• The major expenditure is instruction, at $114 million or 84 per cent of the budget. Operation and maintenance is $14 million, administration $5 million, and both transportation and purchases each cost $1 million.