Students facing longer bus rides
Living a mere five kilometres from Delburne — “If it wasn’t for some trees and a little hill, I could see the town” — Lance Neilson could not believe it when he was told that his children’s ride on the school bus this year would be one hour each way.
The bus ride of 40 minutes his kids faced last year, he thought, was long enough. With one of the bus routes serving Delburne Centralized School cancelled for 2013/14, his children would now be getting picked up at 7:35 a.m.
“I realize the province cut the budget, but man, you cannot make kids ride the bus that long. At these young grades that my kids are at, that can really hamper their outlook on school for the rest of their life. It’s not right,” said Nielson.
But the reality is that because of those provincial cuts, bus rides in Chinook’s Edge School Division will be longer this school year, and other Central Alberta school divisions face the prospect of diminished busing services in the future as well.
In its spring budget, the provincial government discontinued the fuel price contingency program that had provided $22 million to school divisions to help them pay for fuel.
The share for Chinook’s Edge from that total had been approximately $350,000, money that it is not able to make up from other areas.
The answer for the division that covers towns like Sylvan Lake, Innisfail, and Olds has been to amalgamate eight routes. A bus, says director of transportation Dieter Brandt, costs about $50,000 per year to run.
“We’ve been forced into making some harder decisions and we’ve put some routes together in order to eliminate some of our buses.
“That’s put us almost into the black again — the key word being ‘almost,’” said Brandt.
The amount of kilometres traveled is the same, though, and with fewer buses on the road, the amount of time some students are spending in the big yellow vehicles has gone up. Though the division tries to keep all bus rides for students under 60 minutes, Brandt said buses running for 60-70 minutes is becoming the norm.
“We’ve been dealing with many many parents who are very concerned that their bus rides have doubled, or bus rides have increased. I have kids that are riding over an hour on the bus now. But basically it’s not like I can come up with new dollars.
“I really feel for those young students,” said Brandt.
But, he added that it is not all down to funding, as the geography of the division means there will be long rides regardless. And, he said, the routes are always being analyzed; one recent tweak significantly cut down the ride time for one route, and he said he might reinstate one of the routes to deal with a problem area.
In Wolf Creek Public Schools, no routes have been cut for 2013/14, but the transportation division is running a deficit and with other cuts to school funding from the province, the future will probably include fewer buses. The division lost in the neighbourhood of $400,000 when the grant program was cut.
“If our funding stays at the same level next year and we’re in the same deficit position, we’ll have to cut services somehow and that’s where route consolidation and those sorts of things start to come in,” said Joe Henderson, Wolf Creek secretary/treasurer.
Clearview School Division, which includes Stettler and a number of rural and colony schools, has taken $300,000 out of its instructional grants to make up for the funding it lost, which represented about 17 per cent of its annual fuel costs.
“Short term we will continue to provide transportation services, but it’s at the expense of resources that could go to classrooms. . . . Next year will be another big question for us, because that’s not sustainable. We are operating at a deficit now whereas before we were able to operate on a break even basis,” said Peter Neale, associate superintendent, business and finance.
The division is big, and very rural, and sees about 36 students ride the bus in excess of two hours each day, with two students in the Coronation area spending three hours each day on the bus.
However, the average ride time for students from kindergarten to Grade 9 is 57 minutes per day, within the division’s one hour ride time target.
In the school division west of Red Deer, meanwhile, the cut has not had much of an effect, according to associate director of corporate services Gord Majeran. He said the provincial funding formula is generally favourable to Wild Rose Public Schools, a large division, but with very few students to service west of Rocky Mountain House.
“We can see working through this without the fuel funding,” said Majeran, “We haven’t added or decreased or lengthened any (routes). Matter of fact, I think some were shortened.”
Though he said the division has 11 routes that have pickup times before 7 a.m., the average pick up last year was done at 7:53 a.m., with the average student arriving at school at 8:27 a.m.
Catholic students in the Red Deer area are facing increased bus times this school year, but the issue is moreso related to increased enrolment than the loss of the fuel grant, said Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools communications director Jeanne Davis.
Students from the Innisfail area coming into Red Deer to attend Notre Dame High School in particular are dealing with a longer ride this year.
“We are quite concerned about what we’re going to do, because we have added bus routes already to address it,” said Davis.
The board, which runs 125 bus routes transporting nearly 6,000 students, lost about $300,000 in funding through the cut of the fuel grant. Davis said tweaks to routes will likely come throughout the year.
For Red Deer Public Schools, the grant cut will have minimal impact, according to Cody McClintock, associate superintendent, business services, having only accounted for about three per cent of the division’s budget.
The division is running fewer buses this year, though, as it employs “double-routing,” with single buses serving two schools, which have staggered start times.
It is also running a “stacked route” at one school with one bus making two runs. McClintock said to minimize the amount of dead time students are spending at the school, the division has a “first on, first out” policy.
A proposal earlier this year, though, that would have seen students arrive for class up to 40 minutes early at the city’s elementary schools, has not come to pass, he said.
As for Nielson, after making his concerns known to division administration, he said his kids’ daily bus ride was shortened to less than 25 minutes.
“The problem didn’t go away, the problem just isn’t for me anymore. I’m happy as a clam, but some other people are screwed,” he said.