Bus fees part of budget tightening for Chilliwack school board

Fees could generate $400,000 to cover shortfall for transportation costs, but staffing reductions also play big role in 2015/2016 budget

Chilliwack school district has reinstated fees for students who ride school buses.

Chilliwack school district has reinstated fees for students who ride school buses.

School bus fees will return to Chilliwack School District in the fall, following a lengthy discussion by the board on Tuesday night.

The current user fee schedule, as presented to the board and approved in a 5-2 vote, will mean annual bus fees per family could range anywhere from $215 for one “eligible” rider to $700 for two “courtesy riders.” No family will pay for more than two children’s bus transportation, due to a cap put in place. Additionally, families who are unable to pay due to their financial situation can apply for a waiver on the fees.

The Chilliwack School District receives $2.3 million in provincial funding for student transportation costs, but spends about $2.7 million annually. Collecting an annual user fee for ridership is expected to fill the gap in a budget that’s already strained and expected to drastically affect schools this fall.

It could also result in the need for fewer buses.

There are currently 1,577 courtesy riders, who may be traveling out of their catchment area to a school of choice, or a specific academy, or to remain in their preferred school after moving. Other courtesy riders may live in two homes, and travel back and forth between catchment areas. The district’s secretary treasurer, Gerry Slykhuis, said Tuesday night that implementing the fee schedule will undoubtedly cause a drop in courtesy riders. The proposed $350 per student fee is equal to 10 monthly student passes on public transit. Eligible ridership would likely also drop, Slykhuis said, as experienced the last time Chilliwack school district introduced fees in 2010.

Trustee Walt Krahn pointed out that traffic at schools during that time was chaotic, and caught the attention of city bylaw officers as parents and caregivers blocked traffic in congested parking lots designed for buses — not heavy car traffic.

Trustees Heather Maahs and Martha Wiens both voted against the fees, hoping for more time to find answers to questions surrounding the fee schedule, and alternatives. However, Trustee Paul McManus pointed out they’ve been discussing fees for months, and have had ample time to find those answers.

While the school district has found ways to carry the deficit over the last few schools (the fees were previously scrapped in 2012), the recent cuts by the provincial budget has forced staff to “pick the lowest hanging fruit.”

Providing transportation to school is not a requirement of the district, and in many districts busing has been scrapped altogether.

Budget woes

Plenty of other areas will be heavily impacted by next year’s budget, Slykhuis said.

While some school districts had large surpluses, that hasn’t been the case recently for Chilliwack.

“We are definitely beyond easy pickings,” he told the board, while going over the preliminary budget for 2015-2016. “This was a very difficult process and this will be impacting our schools. We can’t make this work without impacting our schools.”

Staffing reductions make up a large part of the savings, at the board level but also within the schools. Some positions will be eliminated, others will be lost by attrition, and other positions will have reductions in hours.

Potential savings outlined in the preliminary budget add up to $2.7 million, and include the $400,000 expected from bus fees, $150,000 expected from a reorganization of IT staff, $190,000 in teacher reductions as enrollment declines, $150,000 from copier leases, and $250,000 from the international program.

Savings through lost positions include $75,000 for the district board office business manager, $75,000 for middle school business managers, $50,000 from one middle school accounting clerk, $75,000 from the finance analyst, $52,000 from a clerical position in the finance department, and $25,000 from a board office receptionist. Changes to the alternate program at C.H.A.N.C.E. will save $78,000, and a further $43,000 will be saved by reducing a ‘helping teacher’ position to a half position.

After the board heard of the expected cuts to meet the new budget, they heard a report from Director of Instruction Kirk Savage. The board had asked staff to bring back information on costs of recording and web  hosting for board meetings, urged on by Maahs at a previous meeting. The costs for initial set up and one year of hosting range from about $10,000 to $35,000, depending on the sophistication of the setup.

But it seems the tightened belts across the board will keep that project on hold indefinitely.

The board thanked Savage for the information, but took no action.

The full budget will be presented for a first reading at the next board meeting, May 19.