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Edmonton Public Schools to consider hiking bus fees after UCP budget results in funding shortfall

EPSB to consider hiking school bus fees after UCP budget results in funding shortfall
WATCH ABOVE: Trisha Estabrooks, chair of Edmonton Public Schools, and NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman talk about a report recommending the EPSB consider raising fees for school transportation to address a funding shortfall.

Edmonton Public Schools trustees are expected to discuss proposed increases to school bus fees next week, and a recommendation report cites the elimination of a funding grant in October’s provincial budget as being the reason for the proposal.

“I guess the board of trustees had some time to wrap our heads around this possibility given the funding shortfall that we have as a result of the provincial budget,” Trisha Estabrooks, chair of EPSB, said on Friday.

“I don’t feel great any time we have to pass fees, or increase fees to families, but unfortunately we are in this position. And so this is something that will be considered.”

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After the Alberta government eliminated the School Fee Reduction grant, the recommendation report says the EPSB now has $5.3 million less money available for student transportation.

The grant was introduced by the previous NDP government in 2017 to offset costs that would be incurred when that government “removed the ability for school boards to charge transportation fees for some students.”

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The report says the school board has worked to find efficiencies in spending and that it had predicted a funding gap of $2.4 million for the 2019-2020 school year, but that the elimination of the fee reduction grant saw that funding gap rise to $7.7 million.

As a result, the EPSB is proposing the implementation of higher fees, which would take effect on Feb. 1, 2020.

The proposal involves introducing a new yellow bus fee of $260 annually for students in Kindergarten to Grade 6, and of $515 annually for students in grades 7 to 12.

Fees for students riding Edmonton Transit Service buses to their designated schools would also rise from $190 annually to $515 annually.

Estabrooks said the reason school bus fee hikes are being considered is partly because the EPSB does not want to make cuts to classrooms mid-school year in order to address the post-budget funding shortfall.

READ MORE: Calgary Board of Education to cut 300 temporary teachers amid $32M shortfall

“I hope that parents understand that we are in a tough position and that this is something that we are seriously considering,” she said.

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“If this passes and a parent is concerned, I’d encourage them to reach out to their trustee.”

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NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman, education critic for the Official Opposition, said in a news release Friday that she places direct blame for the proposed new fees on the Kenney government’s spending priorities.

She called the potential for school bus fees “shameful” and questioned the UCP government’s claim that they have properly funded education.

Hoffman suggested she believes the UCP’s budget, which saw reductions in spending, was drawn up to ensure the government could pay for the corporate tax cuts it brought in.

READ MORE: Alberta rural school division pens letter over UCP education cuts

“Merry Christmas from Jason Kenney and his heartless UCP government,” Hoffman said.

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“Now, many parents will choose between putting presents under the Christmas tree or putting their kids on the bus to get to school.”

EPSB school trustees are expected to discuss the proposed new fees on Tuesday.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, issued a statement in response to Hoffman’s concerns about the potential new fees.

“As a former board chair, it is surprising that MLA Hoffman is speculating about a decision that Edmonton Public Schools has not even considered at a board meeting yet,” he wrote. “It is doubtful that MLA Hoffman would have appreciated opposition MLAs speculating about decisions that had yet to be made by EPSB while she was chairing the board.

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“We respect the autonomy of school boards in their day-to-day decision making. As always, trustees will be accountable to parents for any fee they choose to put in place.”

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READ MORE: Alberta education minister may force CBE to reverse teacher layoffs

Education minister may force CBE to reverse teacher layoffs
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Hoffman said she believes the provincial budget left the EPSB with little choice but to consider such hikes.

“They certainly feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place and I get why they’re doing this, but I feel really awful for the families [that may be affected].”

If the fee increases are approved, Estabrooks said she believes the families of about 10,000 to 11,000 students would be impacted.