‘Trustees are missing the bus’

Parents concerned about busing options in budget, worried how they'll pay

As the school board is compiling statistics and looking at anecdotal research about what the effects of changing its busing policy would be, it is becoming clear that some people would be hurt by the decision.

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board held a public meeting on Tuesday night at Thomas Haney secondary, to hear public input. The board outlined that it must find $5 million in cuts for its 2014-2015 budget.

Trustees are considering two options: cut regular busing service in the district, or charge parents whose children use buses $215 a year for each child, to recoup some of its costs.

The cost of busing regular students is $1,400 per child.

There were approximately 35 parents at the meeting, which was a comparatively small sample of the 470 students who ride one of the district’s 12 buses.

The parents divided into table groups of about five at each, and had their comments recorded in writing.

Parents Jim and Joni Eros have two children who are bussed to Whonnock elementary. They would like to send their children to their neighbourhood school, Albion elementary, which is a five minute walk for the kids. But one child is 20th on the waiting list to get into the crowded school. The kids have to rise earlier than their neighbours each morning, to catch the bus to Whonnock.

“And now they’re taking buses away?” said Joni.

She called the proposal offensive, because it fails to recognize the public education system’s responsibility to accommodate every child, and serve every taxpaying family.

“The public school system needs to be for all children, or none of them.”

The couple resents being inconvenienced by the system, and the implication that they may now have to pay for bus service or drive the kids to school themselves.

Jim is self-employed, and already starts his day at 5 a.m., in order to get in a work day and pick up the kids after school.

If bussing is eliminated, the family would have to add the cost of before-school daycare to their budget.

Despite a relatively small turnout at the Tuesday meeting, Joni predicted that people will be upset if bussing is eliminated.

“I don’t think people are going to let this go lightly.”

Allyson Hawrysh lives near Dewdney Trunk Road and her son attends Whonnock elementary. He is in Grade 7, and if he attends Garibaldi secondary next year, it would take him at least an hour to walk there, she estimated.

Her daughter will still be in elementary school, so driving the children to two different places every morning would be inconvenient.

She said the Dewdney area is full of double income working families who rely on the school bus for their daily routine.

“We really need it.”

Hawrysh also pointed out the district’s busing system has been a way for administrators to keep students evenly distributed amongst secondary schools, while still allowing some choice of which one they attend.

“If I’m forced to drive him to school everyday, I’ll drive him to the school of my choice – not where the bus goes.”

Another man, who did not want to be named, lives in Silver Valley, and his children attend Garibaldi. It was not their first choice, but it is where the district buses kids from that neighbourhood. Maple Ridge secondary is the closer school.

He said there is no option for public transit in Silver Valley if school busing is eliminated.

He noted that if busing is eliminated, parents in the area would want to send children to the school of their choice, not necessarily Garibaldi.

District staff who oversaw the meeting, including David Vandergugten, stressed to the audience that the busing changes are only a proposal. Staff noted that busing is not a mandatory service for boards to provide under the School Act, and that there is no transportation funding from the province.

“We are really taking this matter seriously, and we want you to give us your thoughts,” Vandergugten said.

He added that this is “the hardest budget I’ve ever been through in this district.”

Staff noted that the district has two years left on a contract to provide bussing for both special needs students and regular busing. Changes to that contract would trigger some financial recompense to the contractor, but staff did not offer the figure.

The public also asked whether field trips or travel by sports teams would be affected by the changes, but they are not part of the district’s transportation budget.

Trustees have been presented two transportation options. Both call for “optimization” of transportation for students with special needs.

The first option, which calls for the annual transportation fee of $215 per student, will save the district $190,000 per year.

The second option, which would discontinue bus service, would save $970,000 a year.

Final deliberations and adoption of the budget are scheduled for April 30, at the district office.