Trustee candidates weigh in on busing

When Chilliwack board of education approved charging busing fees to students a year and a half ago, it was met with great amounts of angst.

When Chilliwack board of education approved charging busing fees to students a year and a half ago, it was met with great amounts of angst.

Many did not believe parents should have to pay $200 per child, up to $600 per family, to get their child bused to school.

The argument for charging fees, however, was based on the provincial government’s 2002 freeze on transportation funding and the fact the district was losing $300,000 annually in transportation costs.

A report presented at Tuesday night’s school board meeting showed the district had produced a $72,000 surplus from busing fees last year, but currently has a $25,000 deficit so far this year.

(District staff were directed to further research future transportation options and their impacts. Another report will be presented to the new board in the spring, during the planning of the 2012-13 preliminary budget.)

School trustee candidates were asked by The Progress if the district should continue to charge for busing.

The majority said no.

These are their responses:

Martha Wiens:

Many parents find it very difficult to meet the needs of families. If some feel they can spare the money, that may be their choice. The ones that cannot afford this, have the opportunity to have the cost waived by advising the principal of the school.

I did not agree that there were no refunds in case of illness or other emergent  circumstances. If only one way is required for transportation to school the cost should reflect that.

Heather Maahs:

The district should not continue charging for busing. This has been a big hardship on many families in the district for what can be considered an essential service.  There needs to be a review done on the entire situation including the surplus.

Nicki Redekop:

I don’t agree with charging parents/guardians for busing to and from school. I believe that I am giving a voice on behalf of the community when I say this. Families spent  their hard earned money to pay for busing which left a surplus in the school district. It doesn’t show integrity or accountability for the school board/district. It upsets me that the numbers weren’t accounted for more accurately. I am fully supporting the families, and want to see this changed

Jack Bass:

Todays families cannot add more user fees in the guise of “Revenue Enhancement.” In fact we should be using the present surplus to assure parents and taxpayers we have drawn a line in the sand. I also want to be cautious about turning the school board or any board or school staff into focusing on bringing in cash instead of our primary focus on student achievement

School bus/transportation fees can be lessened for large families and those to whom such payments represent an impossible burden. We need to analyze various scenarios to learn which combination of payment (if necessary) and subsidy (where necessary) can be met . Again this is a worthy but competing program.

We must have all the facts prior to allocation because the revised program should be sustainable – not a continual or annual round of surcharges and then refunds. The present charge of $200 is equal to a $1 a day fee to use the system during a 200 day school year. After a review we can forecast that the transportation fee is or is not necessary to balance the budget.

Vern Tompke:

I would like to see fees for busing removed from the lap of the parents. This may require a process, but the first step would be to immediately halt parents from having to pay more than ONE flat fee (ex. $200) regardless of how many children they have.

Harold Schmidt:

Unfortunately the BC Ministry of Education does not fully fund the district’s expenses for busing. and therefore the shortfall has to be made up by the district through budget cutbacks in other areas or by making up the shortfall through a user payment busing fee. When the BC Ministry of Education again properly funds transportation, the board should eliminate those fees.

I initially felt that the $200 fee per student (to a maximum of $600 per family) charged by the school district for transportation to and from school was disturbing. But the benefits of school busing include: regular dependable transportation to schools every day – rain or shine, dedicated and qualified drivers who know the routes and the students they transport, as well as safe and reliable vehicles. Even though it costs $200, it is a bargain for a dollar a day (less than a cup of coffee) for transportation.

Until last year the district provided free bus transportation. Not all students need bus transportation and some are not eligible as they are within walking distance. Larger urban centers with a good public bus infrastructure do not need district busing. But for those in this district who need school bus transportation, the fee is an extra burden. For some families the cost of car pooling, a taxi, or the cost of driving a student to school, is an even greater burden.

The Chilliwack School District transportation policy [SD#33 policy 710] states: ’the board believes it has a responsibility to provide safe and reliable transportation to students in a fiscally and environmentally responsible manner….all riders may be charged a fee for the service…..the board will work with the government to advocate adequate public transit and safe walking routes for students.’

The board has determined [Transportation-FAQ] that the cost of transporting a student to and from school is approximately $1,150 a year. In 2002 the BC Ministry of Education had frozen Chilliwack School District transportation funding at $2,112,801, resulting in a transportation operating deficit. Meanwhile, the inflationary cost of fuel has significantly risen ($0.63@ litre in 2002 to $1.12 @ litre in 2011). Given the current realities of the BC Ministry of Education’s policy of ‘Net-Zero’ increase in funding public education, resulting in a lack of adequate funding, the board  has had to make difficult decisions to absorb this budget deficit by instituting a user payment fee. To continue to provide busing beyond what is provincially funded would mean a cutback in other services such as EA time, special needs support, additional staffing, etc.

Les Mitchell:

NO I do not agree that there should be a transportation charge for busing our children to school and we need to get the BC goverment to cover this amount of money .

Neil Whitley:

Bus transportation should be provided to students at no cost to parents if they live a certain distance from school. A figure often used is one mile or 1.6 km.

Brett Lawrason:

The school board/district has the responsibility to provide safe and reliable transportation to the students of our school district (Policy 710). Charging parents for busing can be a hardship for many families and although legal, is extremely unfair and not necessary when there is a greater than $2 million non-restricted surplus within the district.

Due to the surplus, I believe that the existing board should reimburse school busing fees for all students this school year.

In the future, students in the regular rider zone category (Policy 710.1 Transportation- Eligibility)(who have always been entitled to ride the bus in the past) that attend neighborhood catchment area schools that are beyond 3.0 km for elementary school students and 4.0 km for middle and secondary students should not pay any busing fees. I also believe that the families of special needs students and board directed students should never be charged for busing to and from school.

When preparing the school district budget for next year and if there appears to be a deficit in the transportation budget, no ride zone students and conditional rider zone students (who historically were only entitled to ride the bus if there was extra room or had an extraordinary circumstance) should pay a reasonable user fee to be determined by the transportation department in consultation with the board and partner groups.

Doug McKay:

The board needs to review the data from last year and monitor the data from this year and then make an informed decision. Right now we are about $300,000 short in the transportation budget line. As a result we need to charge a user fee for certain riders or take money from the classroom or operations to subsidize transportation.

We had long consultations with the community before we implemented the fee. NO parent who finds the fee a hardship has to pay. NO child will be left by the side of the road. Can our program be better; absolutely. We must take the time to complete our research and make an informed and rationale decision that impacts all students and all families fairly and objectively.

Joey Hagerman:

No, I do not think that the school district should continue to charge for busing to and from school. The reason for this is that it is an added financial hardship for families and in this current economic climate every dollar counts when it comes to taking care of one’s family. Also, the district operated with a surplus last year which indicates that the charging for busing was unwarranted.

Barry Neufeld:

For years, Chilliwack has been very generous with busing students. So many routes cris crossed the district that a child could live in east Chilliwack and find a way to school on the western side of Chilliwack, no questions asked. District 33 was never very strict about the rule of how far a child had to live from school before they could catch the school bus. Many children live in homes where the parents are separated and sometimes they go home to mom, sometimes to dad in another part of town. Chilliwack SD always spent more on busing than the ministry of education gave us.

The community of Promontory was a challenge, because the G.W. Graham middle school wasn’t that far away: close enough to walk to school, according to the ministry of education (MOE). But the walk to G.W. Graham was very dangerous, a narrow shoulder on a winding steep road that could be treacherous especially in winter. However, the MOE doesn’t understand Chilliwack’s geography and culture. They severely cut back funding for transportation, and Chilliwack SD can no longer afford to be so generous.

The district agreed with parents that Promontory children should be bused to middle/secondary school: I believe the board has an ethical obligation to ensure the safety of all children, even on the way to and from school. After much consultation, the Promontory parents grudgingly agreed they would rather pay for busing rather than have their children walk down that dangerous road.

Although Chilliwack’s fee of $200 per child to bus a child for the year is a bargain compared to private schools like St. Mary’s who charge $45 a month for busing, ($65 for two children) http://www.stmarysschoolchwk.com/parent-centre/bussing/ I do not think that it is proper to call our system “Public Education” and then make parents pay to send their children to school. Public education should be free. Waiving the fee upon an application for “hardship” is embarrassing and even degrading for parents struggling to support their families in a community where full time jobs are scarce.

That being said, I do not think we should take money from the classroom to pay for bussing. The provincial government should be lobbied hard to be more reasonable in their transportation funding formula. But also, the City of Chilliwack needs to address the deplorable access to neighborhoods like Promontory, and do more to promote safe walking and bike riding in our community.

Dan Coulter:

This is a hard question because the mandate for our schools keeps expanding but the funding is decreasing. If our funding is not increased fees will become an ever increasing method of maintaining standards in the classroom. Funding from the provincial government is going to be a major issue going forward and it is incumbent on all of us to change this paradigm. We are all going to have to advocate on behalf of our children when it comes to funding our school district. I will make this one of my highest priorities. That said if the community wants to reverse the decision on busing fees I will support them. As we have a surplus it may not be an instance of having to choose between two imperfect options.

Don Davis:

The Chilliwack school district should not continue to charge families for busing.

The school district receives over $2 million per year to support student transportation.  The transportation department must find ways to live within its means without increasing the financial burden on our families.

The busing fees have been especially punitive for families that live a considerable distance from their catchment schools. Typically, these families do not enjoy access to public transportation options so they often have no choice but to use (and pay for) the school bus.

Rural area families such as Greendale, Yarrow and the Eastern Hillsides are especially hard hit as students are faced with exceptionally long bus rides – often reaching an hour in length, and families are forced to either cough up the busing fee for this less than adequate service or simply drive their students to school.

As a trustee, I will support a full review of student transportation.  The board of education must balance the most significant needs for the busing service against the limited budget.

If elected as a trustee, I will support a motion to eliminate the busing fees for the next school year and to refund the 2011-2012 busing fees charged to families.

Walt Krahn:

Yes, I would support the charge for this school year, but would request a full review of the policy. I was led to believe that the bus charges were implemented due to the district’s budget shortfall. As we currently have a surplus, we need to review all accounts to determine the most efficient and effective ways of improving student achievement. Reviewing the district’s bus charges policy should be part of this process. I propose we look at options including setting a maximum rate of $400. per family (down from $600) and continue with the fee waiver process where this charge is causing a hardship for families. Attending school should not be a hardship, and we will never leave a child on the side of the road!

Audrey Stollings:

NO, I do not feel that the district should be charging for busing.  From what I have seen and heard, I feel that parents should not be paying for busing. With the fact that  the board has a surplus that they aren’t spending on educational tools for our children, then we should at least be getting them to the school. Spending $80,000 to $103,000 a year on the administration of the busing fees and rider IDs is ludicrous! We want our students to arrive at school safely, on time and ready to learn!

Louise Piper:

This issue is under review. If the service is to remain the same then the operating costs will be subsidized which translates into money coming out of the classroom or infrastructure. Options are being explored and we need to take this matter back to parents for more conversations during this review for their input.

Kirsten Brandreth:

The simple answer is no. The Chilliwack school district should stop charging parents/guardians a fee for busing as we have enough surplus in our budget to top up the ministry funding. Parents and guardians pay enough having their children attend school with student fees, non-essential course material, field trips and so on. I was in favour of a revenue neutral fee to keep our children safe when we were very concerned with a deficit budget.

Karen Jarvis:

The district continues to have a surplus of funds even when it has prepared for defecits. This issue needs to be re-evaluated. There is a group of parents who, for safety’s sake stated that if they had to pay for busing in order to keep their kids safe, they would be willing to pay. I was at the board meetings when this was discussed and attended the input sessions regarding the transportation concerns. There were 3 different options that were considered. The fact that there is a surplus of funds in the district is what I believe is causing grief regarding the matter.  The issue is somewhat complex and the freeze on provincial government funding for transportation does not help the matter.

If the school district is in the positive in part because of charging transportation fees, then the district needs to do the right thing and refund those families affected. Tuesday night’s board meeting provided more information regarding the transportation policy. We need to make transportation fair for all students and communicate clearly where things are at so that everybody understands.

David Russell:

When it comes to the busing issue, I want the school district to be focused on teaching students, not transporting them. I believe it is the responsibility of us, as parents, to ensure that our students arrive at school on time and prepared to learn. As long as this fee is being charged, our family will pay for busing.

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