Trustee: Balancing programs against bus trips ‘worrying’

Will school bus fees go up? Will Valley students still be bused to their schools of choice?

Will school bus fees go up? Will Valley students still be bused to their schools of choice?

No changes are set for September 2016 but the Cowichan Valley school district board of education has acknowledged that they have to talk about those subjects in the fall. Trustees, faced with a $3.3 million funding shortfall, were taking their first look April 21 at ideas for balancing their 2016-17 budget.

District secretary-treasurer Jason Sandquist, while presenting a list of suggestions, intentionally left “busing fees” blank because he knew the subject would generate discussion.

A survey of parents, which generated only 162 responses, indicated that the majority of those folks favoured the idea of increasing busing fees, but it was a very small sampling of opinion and there was no way of knowing if their children even took the bus, he said.

Trustee Cathy Schmidt convinced her colleagues that the talk should happen well before any changes were made because she saw some difficult decisions looming over the horizon in the coming years.

“I really feel this is a conversation we need to have. We’re at that point now where we are paying an awful lot of money for transportation.  When we went to [provincial school trustees’ convention in Vancouver recently] we learned that a lot of districts are struggling with busing and they were only busing to home schools. And they were struggling to afford that. When they found out what we bus, they asked, ‘How are you guys even able to afford it?’” she said.

Schmidt said balancing programs against bus trips was worrying.

“I’m starting to struggle in my soul,” she said.

“These kids need support; they need programs. So busing needs to be reviewed. And maybe as a board, instead of increasing the bus fees, we could leave them as they are and review what would happen if we only bused to home schools, not all over the district. Can we save some money that way and put it back into programs in years to come?” she asked. “Can we afford to look at kids and say, ‘You can’t have that program but you’ll get a ride to school.’ The idea is: there’s a dollar on the table, which way do you want to go? I’m really struggling with the busing fees knowing what we have to do this year.”

Trustee Rob Hutchins asked her, “You’re talking about not doing anything for this budget? You wouldn’t want to try for some relief now?”

Schmidt said, “No. If we’re looking at an overhaul for next year.  My personal opinion is to leave the things the way they are now and have a real conversation in the fall on what we’re going to do about busing.”

Trustee Elizabeth Croft said that she shared that concern and said that she agreed with Sandquist that just because some of the people who sent in surveys liked the idea of increased busing fees, it was “not a mandate to raise them.”

But, giving students choice is important, she said.

“We can no longer build schools where every single one of them has a shop or has all the resources that students might need; the next question is that they have to be able to get there in order to have choice. We might look at a small increase this year. I think it’s certainly worth a discussion.”

Trustee Candace Spilsbury said that any changes in the busing situation should be approached carefully.

“However it looks on paper it’s not an easy transition for our staff. Even getting general acceptantce of bus fees was huge,” she said, adding that “it’s very late in the year to make changes.”

Sanquist agreed with Spilsbury about the difficulty of getting the public to deal with any changes in busing.

“We’ve taken three years to get to a place where we’re not receiving angry phone calls,” he said.