Recent changes to school bus service in Salmon Arm have some parents feeling relieved over shorter bus times while others feel concerned and excluded from the decision.
The North Okanagan-Shuswap School District says the changes to bus service for courtesy riders – students riding the bus to schools outside of their catchment area – will cut down on the time some students spend on the bus.
However, parents in the Ranchero community are expressing their concerns over the cancellation of a bus route from Ranchero to schools in Salmon Arm. They think this change may limit the options for their child’s education and create scheduling challenges for parents in addition to safety concerns if their children are expected to walk.
A video posted to Facebook by parent Jill Hunt that has gathered more than 44,000 views at the time of writing lays out some of the issues parents in Ranchero have with the proposed bus changes.
Posted by Jill Hunt on Tuesday, July 3, 2018
It shows several students holding up signs detailing concerns parents and students have over the bus service changes. Without a bus or parent available to drive them, students would be faced with a walk of up to six kilometres to and from school, crossing several roads including a highway.
While these students live outside of the 3.5-km walking distance limit for catchment area schools, because they are enrolled in schools outside of their catchment areas, bus service is no longer available to them.
“We made it because now all of us parents have to find a way for our kids to get to school,” Hunt says of the video. “We are fighting it because that bus has been running for 20-plus years and then all of a sudden they are just cutting it.”
The key issues these parents have with the proposed changes are how quickly they were finalized and how parents’ proposed alternatives seem to have been ignored.
“We got a notice maybe a week before the meeting at the end of May,” Hunt says. “What they could have done is give us a full year… Most parents work, I work 12-hour shifts, I don’t understand how they think that we can just drop our lives and drive our kids to school.”
Among the alternatives offered by these parents were one-way busing, a central pick-up and drop-off point to minimize individual stops, and even parents fronting the extra costs for courtesy riders.
However, the school district notes in an information package sent to parents that the changes were not made for financial reasons.
“The decision to alter our current practice was based fully on capacity, ride time and the number of buses the district has available.”
The district also says it has considered asking for fees from courtesy riders but those fees can’t cover the actual costs while remaining reasonable.
However, it has not completely ruled out courtesy riders on eligible bus routes, stating, “Transportation staff will monitor the situation in the early fall to see if further adjustments can be made to increase access while maintaining efficiency.”
In an email to the Observer, the school district noted that Ranchero was one of the few communities in the district that had a bus running to a school outside their catchment.
“For several years now it has been noted the bus route would not be continuing, and the recent transportation review pointed out the need for the routes to change so that eligible riders, especially those travelling the farthest, can have the most efficient routes possible.”
The deciding factor seems to be that a large number of courtesy rider requests has created overcrowding and greatly extended ride times. Some students reportedly spent an extra 90 minutes on the bus each day due to extended routes.
While the bus service changes will cut down on ride times for many students, they also create problems for students who are attending schools in Salmon Arm in order to access educational opportunities not available in rural schools — in the Hunts’ case, French immersion.
“One of the reasons we decided my daughter can go to late French immersion was because there is a bus,” Hunt says. “Now she has already done a year and there is no bus anymore.”
The district says providing transportation to students in ‘programs of choice’ is a tricky problem with no easy solution. While some students live within a reasonable distance or along an established bus route, giving them access to transportation while denying it to others who live farther away creates its own kind of imbalance.
Hunt thinks the school district may be hoping these busing changes encourage more parents to enrol their children in schools within their catchment area. However, she questions if the district has considered the logistics of a sudden influx of students back into small rural schools.
“If all the kids that are actually in the catchment area for Ranchero had to come back to Ranchero, there wouldn’t be enough room. I know three people that tried to register, who had moved last summer and whose kids were going to be in Grade 5 at Ranchero, and they got denied because they were full.”
However, the district says “when an issue arises, it is usually because part way through a year some students move in (after classes are already operating at a school) and the new students put a grade over the class size limits.”