Red Deer public schools have exhausted all possible cost savings when it comes to busing. That means money is still being pulled from classrooms to help cover transportation costs.
Bruce Buruma, the district’s community relations director, said inadequate transportation funding for schools is already causing earlier class starts, shorter lunch breaks and fewer recesses for some elementary students.
To keep a lid on a transportation deficit of $150,000 last year, and $280,000 the year before, the school district is “double routing” school buses that it contracts from Prairie Bus Lines.
This means one school bus is used to take students to and from two schools.
To accommodate a busier bus schedule, schools have adopted staggered start and dismissal times — meaning “School A” might start at 8:10 a.m., while “School B” doesn’t start until 8:55 a.m. to allow the one bus to finish both routes, says Buruma.
The schools would finish at either 2:37 or 3:35 p.m., respectively, so the same bus can take the kids home.
“Transportation is the biggest indicator of school start and finish times,” adds Buruma — regardless of study results that show many students don’t reach optimum levels of mental performance until the afternoon.
The district has had to shorten lunch periods, or cut one of the daily recesses at some schools, because “we have to figure out how to get all the educational hours in” around the bus schedules, says Buruma.
Part of the transportation funding shortfall for both Red Deer school districts results from a discrepancy between provincial and parental expectations of how far children should walk to school.
The government will pay to bus children who live further than 2.4 kilometres from their designated school, but many parents consider this is too far for their young children to walk.
Red Deer’s public and Catholic school districts have, therefore, chosen to subsidize the transportation of students who live between 1.6 and 2.4 kilometres away from school.
It’s necessary because that’s what parents expect, says Buruma.
“We’ve always had inadequate funding for transportation,” said Nicole Buchanan, chair of the Red Deer public school board.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can, and yet we are always running a deficit.”
Buchanan hopes this gap will be addressed in the upcoming provincial budget, or in Alberta Education’s funding framework review.
The Catholic school district, which runs its own school buses and also has some doubled-up routes, is dealing with a $500,000 deficit that’s covered from other available funding.
Rod Steeves, the Catholic district’s secretary treasurer, says “it would definitely be nice” to get more realistic transportation funding from the province.
“Funding shortfalls are always a struggle in the transportation area,” he adds.
“It’s been an issue for many, many years.”
School districts are also asking for more flexible funding from the province, instead of targeted “envelope funding.”
“We’d like to be able to put (money) where it has the greatest impact,” says Buchanan.