Trustees consider charging riders on school buses

SYLVIE PAILLARD / Kamloops Daily News
May 28, 2012 01:00 AM

Kamloops-Thompson School District trustees were pained during a board meeting Monday night over the possibility of charging a user fee for school-bus riders.

They heard numerous options to address the $300,000 to $500,000 shortfall the district has faced every year for nearly a decade during a report from the transportation funding review committee.

But whatever decision is made, it will not be implemented in the coming school year, said the school board.

The board's overarching sentiment was frustration with the province over the funding formula changes that precipitated the annual shortfall and which the district calls faulty.

"For years now, we've been holding our breaths, pushing our MLAs," said trustee Joan Cowden. "You start charging fees and you're worried about all the families that can't afford it. We want students to be in schools. If we can't get them to school, we can't teach them."

Art MacDonald, director of facilities and transportation, detailed what finances would look like should all 3,629 riders be charged $100 a year ($283,465 in revenue) and if only the 1,599 "courtesy riders" paid the same ($110,915 in revenue).

Courtesy riders total 44 per cent of all riders. More than 1,000 of those live within the prescribed 4.8-kilometre walk limit from the school but face threats like highways, or they live on a bus route with available seating.

The fee suggestion led trustees to renew calls on area MLAs to push for a review of the formula used to determine busing needs, which is hurting their constituents.

"This is going to hurt the disadvantaged families that are already disadvantaged," said trustee John Harwood.

MacDonald said possible unforeseen problems could also arise if fees are charged, such as an unanticipated rise in "courtesy" riders who don't mind paying the monthly $10 and want to hop on. The district wouldn't have the buses to increase capacity.

The district would also have difficulty answering why they charge some students while providing funds for others through the transportation assistance program for those who don't live on a bus route.

Other options considered were eliminating the bus system altogether, which was quickly dismissed despite comments two years ago from then-Transportation Minister Shirley Bond that school districts aren't obligated to provide busing.

Contracting out the service was also discussed but dismissed as highly unlikely since the CUPE contract forbids eliminating jobs in favour of outsourcing. And even if negotiated, the severance payouts would offset savings for years.

Talks with the City of Kamloops for integration went nowhere when the municipality said it wouldn't be willing to get more buses to accommodate students.

So the staff recommendation settled on maintaining service while charging courtesy riders or all riders.

Trustees will revisit the issue during an August school board meeting, after which the district's education partners will be invited to share ideas and comments into the month of November.

Meanwhile, pressure on MLAs and the province will continue, said school board chair Denise Harper.

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