With B.C. school districts strapped for cash, buses increasingly on chopping block

Forget singing “the wheels on the bus” on an actual school bus in British Columbia.

Or at least doing so for free.

Across the province, school boards have cancelled bus services while others are planning to cancel them or raise fees for families that use them, all in an attempt to balance budgets that have become increasingly stretched in recent years.

“We know we have a responsibility to deliver a solid public education system to students and families in our communities. Providing transportation to what amounts to a very small percentage of our student population is secondary,” said Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School Board Chair Mike Murray. His school board is set to pass a budget that would see all service discontinued come the 2016-2017 school year. They expect to save $650,000 per year, even after providing subsidies to eligible low income families that currently use school buses.

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“We’re not happy with having to do that, but that is our reality,” he said.

The reasons Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows has targeted schools buses are complex, but they’re not uncommon. There are 60 school boards in British Columbia, and they’ve been collectively ordered by the provincial government to find $54 million in administrative savings in the next two years. That, combined with inflationary pressures, BC Hydro increases, and wage increases for teachers and support workers, has caused difficult cuts in many places.

READ MORE: Vancouver School Board plans to sell and lease back equipment to reduce costs

Here are how four school districts are dealing with the financial pinch – and how changes to school bus services impact their bottom line.

School District 60 – Peace River North

“We’re about the size of three Vancouver Islands in our district,” says Jaret Thompson, chair of the Peace River North School District.

The district’s main city is Fort St. John, 1,200 kilometres of Vancouver. Most of the smaller villages have no middle or secondary schools, forcing a commute to school anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours in length – and that’s in good weather.

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But next year, all families using the school bus will be charged a registration fee of $100 for the first time. It affects about 40 per cent of students.

“For those who live in the rural areas, it’s access to education,” said Thompson. “They can’t log on and do it online, because there’s none of those services available to them. It’s really about access. Years ago, we closed these small schools down in these rural areas where we had small three-room schools, and that was done on the promise there would be transportation funds provided.”

In 2012, however, the funding formula for transportation funds changed, sharply reducing the amount of money the district was given.

“[They] say we’re not responsible, and nothing in the School Act compels us to provide transportation for students,” said Thompson.

He says the district is facing $340,000 in cuts this year and $600,000 next year and the revenue provided by the bus fee is one of the few options they have to bridge the gap.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot out of a $55 million annual budget. But in a school budget, 85 per cent of that is negotiated wages and compensation we can’t touch. We’re paying it anyway. In the rest of the budget where this is looked at, it’s very very difficult to find money.”

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Thompson understands parents’ disappointment.

“They’re unhappy. They really think it’s unfair. I hope they lobby the government too. Our MLA, our regional district and other regional municipalities have been working hard…it’s not where things should be when it’s a critical access to education piece.”

WATCH: Peace River Region students to pay for bus

School District 22 – Vernon

Vernon is like many school districts in British Columbia: a mid-sized region, centred around one main city, but with several smaller cities an hour way.

And like many school districts, they’re also facing a large deficit.

“We’re looking at the current draft, and it would have us eating up about $950,000 of our operating reserves,” said Adrian Johnson, acting secretary-treasurer for the Vernon School District.

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“We’ve got an operating deficit. We’re going to use reserves, but that’s not a sustainable means of funding.”

Cutting their transportation budget was considered in consultations this year. After some thought, they decided against it.

But next year, they face a further $400,000 funding decrease. Johnson says they’re going to be looking at the future of the bus program “very seriously” in the next year. Transportation may be an incredibly small part of any school district’s budget, but it’s one place where costs can be cut, and revenues can be raised.

“We’ve cut to the bone everywhere. We don’t want to be impacting the classroom, so transportation, while it’s a valuable service to getting kids to school and certainly benefits the classroom in many ways, it’s a case of running out of places to look,” he says.

It’s not an easy cut for any district, but especially his.

“We’re a relatively rural school district, public transportation is not really that useful for the majority of our students. We also have issues like lack of sidewalks, so there’s understandable hesitation. It’s a complex issue.”

School District 34 – Abbotsford

On April 29, Abbotsford’s board of education voted unanimously to create a single fee structure for all bus riders. All families will pay $300 for bus service for one child, or $500 for multiple children.

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Abbotsford School Board Chair Cindy Schafer framed it as a way of streamlining administrative costs.

“We’re kind of simplifying it, it makes our overhead costs become more reasonable,” she said. “That was the recommendation from the public consultations. We simplified once, we simplified again.”

She pointed out that because the cost for individuals going to a school of choice was $350, some families would find savings.

But the cost for an individual public school student used to be $200. For many of the 1,587 students who took a public bus to a fully public school this year, it is a 50 per cent increase.

Many Lower Mainland school districts have already looked at school buses for savings. Chilliwack is restoring a bus fee that will range from $215 to $350 per year. Delta and Coquitlam have eliminated their bus service altogether.

Abbotsford School District is facing a $3.5 million shortfall for next year. School districts must submit balanced budgets, and they will likely have to face more cuts next year. Schafer is hopeful next year they won’t come from bus funding.

“We’re trying to be prudent and cautious and skinny up on as many things as we can. We’re hoping next year may not be quite as difficult,” she said.

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The same can’t be said for the municipality to their north.

School District 42 – Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows

Last year, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows inserted a fee for buses for the first time. Families were charged $215 for each of their first two children, and $100 for every child thereafter. The results were less than ideal.

“What actually happened was the number taking the buses went down by 100 students,” said Murray. It meant the subsidy for the remaining students, even with the fee, was too great compared to the reductions other sectors of the budget were facing.

“Over the last two years we have had service level cuts of about $8 million to our annual operating budget. That meant the reduction of about 70 positions in our district,” he said.

“All of those alternatives we already used up. We increased our class size for each of the last couple of years. Were we to not proceed with the changes in busing in 2016/2017, we anticipate we would have to increase those class sizes, and at this stage we’re not prepared to do that.”

Three hundred and seventy students regularly rode the school buses this year. Their parents are now looking for alternatives, with the silver lining of having a year to prepare.

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“We’re doing everything we can not to proceed with [cancellation] until we absolutely have to do, which we believe will be next year. We want to provide notification of that now, so we and [parents] can work on things like before-and-after school care,” says Murray.

“This is not something we want to do. This is something we have to do.”

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