School buses are running, but not everyone is happy.
It was a bizarre year for bus parents in 2016, as they faced first the prospect of no school bus service; then a smaller, but more expensive service; and eventually saw additional funding from the province and reinstatement of no-fees bus service.
The resulting bus service is a downgrade, said Pascale Shaw, one of the bus parents who lobbied the board for a better bus system at every step of the process.
She said there are still a lot of complaints.
“The pickup times are way too early in lots of cases, and they’ve combined the routes so bus stops are farther away.”
She said children in eastern Maple Ridge leave home in “total darkness” at 7 a.m., so they can walk along rural side roads with no sidewalks to bus stops.
She said this new optimized bus service would be better utilized if it was more convenient, with more stops, and was safer for students.
The board has told bus parents the district will be reviewing walk limits and the effectiveness of the new system.
The board had eliminated regular bus service in September 2015, in order to shave $650,000 from the 2016-2017 budget. Parents organized protests, including one at Garibaldi secondary, which had about 200 bus students.
But when the province restored $25 million in funding to school districts on May 31, the board announced that it would take $260,000 from its share of $630,000 to create a new, more efficient, school bus pilot project.
If it had gone ahead, the pilot would have seen the rates paid by bus parents rise to an annual flat fee of $416 per student, with no breaks for families with more than one child. They would have been the most expensive school bus fees in the province.
Courtesy riders – children who live within walk limits, but are still willing to pay for bus service – would not have been allowed.
But on Aug. 4, trustees voted to restore the previous rates of $215 per rider for the first two, and $100 for the third or more children from the same family. There was also a hardship policy for parents who cannot afford the charges.
Finally, in August, the province announced that district could apply for funding from a new $14.7 million fund to assist with student bus service.
Education Minister Mike Bernier announced the fund, noting it requires districts to submit a plan on how the money will be used to “boost transportation services,” by adding new routes, improving disability access and bus stops or improving access to public transit.
To qualify, school districts had to drop fees charged to parents for school bus service.
“We’re happy to have the buses,” said Shaw. “But we’re unhappy that they have been combined to the point where it’s not used as much as would be possible.”