New bus system ‘set up for failure’

MLAs see pilot bus project as progress in resolving issue

Parents who send their kids to school on the bus are worried that a revised model for student transportation is doomed to fail.

“The first reaction is we’re really happy they’ve done this, but we’re really concerned with the details that will either make this work or not,” said Pascale Shaw, spokesperson for a parent group that has spent a year lobbying for school bus service to be continued.

Regular bus service in the district was eliminated to save $650,000 per year from the board’s annual budget. But on Wednesday, trustees considered how to spend $632,000 in funding reinstated by the province, and approved a one-year bus pilot project for transportation with a budget of $260,000.

With the new system, fees will rise to $416 a year per student from $215. The board also agreed to extend and optimize routes so that the busses are 95 per cent full.

Transportation will only be offered to eligible students – those in kindergarten to Grade 3 who live more than four kilometers from their school, and Grade 4-12 students who are more than 4.8 km away.

“I told them, ‘If you really and truly want this to succeed, there needs to be some adjustments to this, because the way it is set up right now, it will fail,’” said Shaw.

The present system allows courtesy riders – students who live closer to the school, but whose parents are willing to pay the fee ride the bus. Without them, Shaw doubts the busses will be full.

“We need courtesy riders to make sure the buses fill up.”

Trustee Ken Clarkson had the same question for district staff.

“If a bus is going by someone, why are we saying we won’t stop to pick them up?” he asked.

Secretary-treasurer Flavia Coughlan said the expectation is that the optimized busses will be too full.

Shaw also decried the lack of a monthly pay system except for those who qualify for a low-income subsidy.

“That’s a lot of money. I don’t have $850 [$832] to spend tomorrow,” she said.

The board will no longer be making concessions for large families. The present system charges $215 for the first two children in one family, and $100 for the third and others. The new system will be a flat fee, $416 per child.

“To me, that’s not fair,” said trustee Korleen Carreras.

She proposed a motion to offer a reduced rate for larger families, but it was defeated by a 4-3 vote.

There are 13 bus families with three children, and five with four kids.

Shaw said the distances to determine eligibility should also be reconsidered.

“Our limits in this district are way too far, and not consistent with the rest of Canada. Four kilometers for a five-year-old to walk to school is just too far,” said Shaw. “If they want it to work, they will work with us and address these details.”

Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton said bus parents have expressed their concerns to him that the new system won’t work.

He met with board chair Mike Murray and district staff on Thursday morning to discuss the issue, and believes it will be a sincere attempt at a more cost effective system.

“It sounds like they do want to make it work, and I’m hopeful it will work out well,” said Dalton.

He said the matter will play out over the next year.

“I hope we don’t have to go through this all again next year.”

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing agreed that the board is trying to lower costs by creating the most efficient system possible.

“It buys them [parents] a year. So that’s a good start,” said Bing.

The board put most of the restored reinstated funding, $360,000, into teacher and instructional staff allocations for vulnerable students at elementary and secondary levels, and to minimize the number of academic classes over 30 at the secondary level.

Trustees noted that even that amount does not address the entire need. The board would need $690,000 to reduced the secondary teacher-student ration to 1:30, and another $200,000 to address staffing to support social/emotional/mental health needs of students, said a staff report.

Trustees also allocated $7,000 to increase elementary clerical support.