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School District 59 still grappling with bus dilemma

Options on the table include sponsorship, changing routes — even closing schools

It’s a three-year old problem: What do you do when your busing budget has been slashed by $750,000?

School District 59 (SD 59), Peace River South, is still grappling with this challenge, which stems from a funding formula change introduced by the Ministry of Education.

The change amounts to a 23 per cent reduction to what was a $3.3 million transportation budget.

Several steps have already been taken since the cuts were introduced in the 2012/2013 school year to make up for the funding shortfall.

They include introducing busing fees for the district’s private schools, eliminating a total of six bus routes, and charging fees for Chetwynd in-town busing.

These are all part of the four-phased plan SD 59 developed after hiring United States-based consultant Jeff Viar to look into the issue in 2013.

Viar — after initially being amazed at the fact that the entire state of New Hampshire could fit within the geographic span of SD 59 — came up with a number of solutions, some of which were still being considered at the March 11 Board of Education meeting in Dawson Creek.

But there are still more questions than answers at this point as to how the district can maintain an effective transportation system in light of the cuts.

Busing within SD 59’s vast rural routes is expensive, especially when you consider the fact that drivers travel about 1.1 million kilometres per school year, according to Viar’s report.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender has already told the school district that providing busing is optional.

But, according to Richard Powell, SD 59 board of education chair, not providing busing for rural students simply isn’t an option.

“We are not required to bus,” Powell said, “but by practice I don’t know how you can get around not busing. We’ve done it for so long — why would we not do it?

"I would say that, although it’s not mandatory, I think it is practical.”

During the March board meeting, Powell talked about partnering with businesses for advertising on buses and sponsorships as a potential new revenue stream that could be fed into the transportation budget.

The practice is common in the United States and it is one that could bring in additional revenue.

“It came as a question: ‘could we advertise on busing?’ The answer is probably yes we could, but because of all the regulations for signage on buses it would be probably not practical to do it,” Powell clarified.

If they were to go the route of advertising to make up for the provincial funding shortfalls, Powell said the school district would likely look at placing ads in school gyms.

“Part of the thing we would have to look into is if a company [placing ads] is one that is contrary to things like our nutrition policy. For instance Coca-Cola or Pepsi, we probably wouldn’t advertise but some of the other energy companies we probably would,” he said.

“But we haven’t got to that decision on how we go about doing this. Who does it - do the schools do it? Does the district office? We haven’t worked any of that out.”

These discussions are all part of SD 59’s transportation review, which is currently in phase three.

Centralized pick up and drop off points for rural students are being considered, along with more busing fees, and possible school closures.

“We know that one school, maybe two schools, are getting down to that enrollment number that may need to be reviewed [for closure],” Powell said.

Alaska Highway News  could not confirm which schools these were by press time.

SD 59 has also approached the Peace River Regional District for Fair Share funding support for the transportation budget, and a four-day school week remains on the radar, although as Powell says, it's a long shot.

“I haven’t heard of many four day school weeks anymore [in other school districts],” he said.

The cuts have been implemented by shaving $250,000 from the transportation budget each year since 2012.

As budget discussions for the next school year get underway in the coming months, there is the potential that some programs could also be axed, and their funding transferred to busing to make up the remaining amount that needs to be removed from transportation, Powell added.

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