Lethbridge school divisions raise concerns after council votes not to renew school bus contract

Click to play video: 'Superintendents concerned after Lethbridge city council votes to not renew school bus contract'
Superintendents concerned after Lethbridge city council votes to not renew school bus contract
WATCH ABOVE: The Lethbridge School Division and Holy Spirit School Division said they were caught by surprise when council voted to not renew a longstanding school bus contract. Quinn Campbell has reaction. – Nov 26, 2019

The Lethbridge School Division and Holy Spirit Catholic School Division have come forward with concerns after Lethbridge city council voted unanimously to sever its school bus contract when it expires in August 2020.

The resolution was part of Monday’s discussion on Phase 1 of a three-year fiscal and operational review, done by KPMG, which offered several options on how to curb city spending.

According to the city, Lethbridge is currently the only municipality in North America to operate school buses on behalf of the school districts.

“I guess you could say that the school jurisdictions were somewhat surprised with the announcement,” said Cheryl Gilmore, superintendent of the Lethbridge School Division, “with the recommendation in the plan to sever… a 50-year partnership within one week basically.”

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In a joint statement, the Lethbridge School Division and the Holy Spirit Catholic School Division said the current collaborative model should be an example to strive toward, with the “opportunity to model the ‘new standard’ in school bus operations being examined by the province.”

Mayor Chris Spearman addressed the school boards’ concerns on Tuesday.

“We respectfully disagree,” Spearman said. “It’s kind of like a whole regiment walking, and one person is out of step and claiming that everybody else is out of step.”

Spearman added that he voted in favour of the resolution because he feels the city should not carry the risk and liability for school buses.

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“We are choosing not to have the risk of transporting students. School busing is done by school boards in every other jurisdiction in this province.”

The school divisions said they were not included in any consultation during the operational review, and that risk and liability had never been flagged in the past.

With the current partnership expiring in August, the school divisions fear that there is not much time to explore alternatives.

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“Transition of operation to September 2020 seems like a a long ways away, but with respect to a business operation of that size and complexity, that really doesn’t position the school jurisdictions to be able to make a reasonable transition into operations or [to] explore possibilities, for that matter,” Gilmore said.

Spearman said he believes the city has given the pair of school divisions reasonable notice.

“I’m absolutely astounded that nine months is not enough notice,” he said, “that by Sept. 1 of next year they can’t arrange to have transportation in place.”

The school divisions are now looking to find a solution that won’t cost parents.

“If they go forward with this decision as is, our parents and our students are going to be impacted tremendously,” said Chris Smeaton, superintendent of the Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.

Spearman said other communities have found ways around charging parents, and added that with the current model being a break-even service, he doesn’t understand why it would have to go up.

“All they have to do is keep fully funding student transportation,” he said. “The money — [or] the check — doesn’t go to the City of Lethbridge, they just run the operation themselves.

“I don’t understand why it’s going to cost more.”

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The Lethbridge Transit Union could also be effected. Its president, Travis Oberg, said he believes the decision would impact 60 school bus drivers currently working on routes in the city.

Oberg called the move harsh and said he had written a letter to the city asking council to reconsider. He said the letter went unanswered.

Oberg added that outsourcing the service could mean money would go to corporate owners and not stay in the community.

“Under the current system, there are no mark-ups or profits,” Oberg said in a statement. “All the money goes into providing the best quality service. By privatizing school buses, money needlessly goes to corporate owners, not [to ensure] quality for school kids.”

Both school divisions’ superintendents are planning to meet with city council at Monday’s community issues committee meeting.

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