School bus companies across Alberta gathered Thursday night at the Chateau Nova Yellowhead Hotel in Edmonton with the goal of addressing what they describe as a crisis in their industry.
The Alberta Student Transportation Advisory Council hosted a town hall where drivers, parents and government officials convened to discuss driver shortages and an increase in costs for insurance and vehicle maintenance.
“It’s been a tough school start up for school busing. Lot of routes not covered.
“Lots of shortages of drivers around the province and kids not getting that school bus everyday on time and sometimes not at all,” said Mark Critch, president of the Alberta Student Bus Contractors’ Association.
Drivers pitched for increased wages, provincial funding and benefits to support members.
“We know we need to pay drivers better. We need to look at things like benefits or other opportunities to show drivers that we value the importance of the job,” Critch added.
Les Cross, president of Pacific Western Transportation School Division, said as the cost of living continues to rise, he understands why drivers are leaving the industry.
“It’s a tough time for people. You know, groceries are costing more. Rent is costing more. Mortgages are more,” he explained.
The drivers remaining left on his team are now running late on some routes because they’re doubling up.
“We used to have a lot of retired folks where this would be a supplemental income and today that doesn’t work for them,” he added.
It’s disappointing for Kathy Fenton, who’s been driving buses for more than 20 years. As the owner of Fenton Bus Lines, she said she’s fighting for her employees.
“I love that I drive a bus because I’m in touch with the people I hire. This is why we’re here tonight. And that’s why I came here because we can’t get bus drivers trained. We can’t keep them. They are just struggling,” she explained.
The concerns were heard by the Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides, who attended the town hall. He said the province has been working on a solution.
“In the last budget, we announced over $400 million in new funding, including a 32 per cent increase in transportation funding this year alone, in addition other programs for driver retention,” Nicolaides explained.
He said he will continue to raise those concerns at the legislature but cannot yet commit to making the changes drivers recommended.
“The folks that are here have so much expertise on the world of bussing and student transportation so I’m looking to hear more from them,” the minister added.
Critch said he sympathizes with parents, knowing the lack of buses on the roads puts them at an inconvenience and finding alternative plans to get their kids to class.
“It’s a challenging time for parents. They’re late because they are taking their kids to school. Kids are waiting on the side of the road for a bus way too long,” he explained.
Fenton pleaded with parents to join them in solving the crisis by contacting local and provincial officials.
“Help us. Help us. Don’t be mad at us. Help us,” she said.
“Bus drivers want to make you happy. Work with them.”