BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK-The Pembina Hills School Division will gradually raise the fees charged for in-town transportation over the next two years in order to achieve cost recovery for in-town transportation.
After considerable debate and two failed motions, trustees ultimately voted 5-1 at their March 17 meeting to raise the fees for in-town transportation from $360 to $415 in the 2021-2022 school year and then to $470 in 2022-2023.
Kindergarten and other preschoolers riding in-town buses will continue to pay 50 per cent of those fees.
Under this scenario, Westlock and Barrhead will also see their two routes combined into one, which will result in students riding the bus for an extra 20 minutes. A second route will only be offered if the costs of doing so can be recovered.
The first pick-up time for kids utilizing in-town transportation will be pushed back from 8:05 a.m. to 7:45 a.m.
In addition, there is now a requirement that in-town routes cannot fall below 35 per cent capacity on the buses or else the route will be cancelled. There is little danger of this happening in Westlock or Barrhead as there are waiting lists of students wanting to ride the bus, but Swan Hills’ ridership is low.
The issue of in-town transportation first arose at the Feb. 24 board meeting, when administration presented trustees with an analysis of in-town transportation costs.
It must be stressed that the province does not fund in-town transportation and the division only receives money to bus students who live more than 2.4 kilometres from their designated school.
“We have in the past provided this service as a courtesy,” said Supt. Dave Garbutt. “There is no funding for it. There is no expectation by the government or other parties outside the parents that we serve that we provide this. And it is an optional service.”
The fees charged for in-town transportation are supposed to cover the costs of the service, but administration’s analysis showed it was in fact being subsidized by the division to the tune of $53,187 per year, as based on 2019-2020 ridership data.
T(he reason 2019-2020 data was used is because ridership is considerably down in 2020-2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; as a result, the division is incurring a shortfall of $70,000.)
On Feb. 24, the board was presented with a number of options for achieving cost recovery such as increasing the fees for all children, raising the fees for Kindergarten and pre-school kids, cancelling some routes or even cancelling all routes.
After some debate, the board asked administration to provide an analysis of the costs of keeping the fees at $400, with Kindergarten students paying either 50 per cent or 100 per cent of the fees.
Treasurer Tracy Leigh said on March 17 that raising the fees to $400 would cost the division $11,000 annually if Kindergarten fees were kept at 50 per cent or $8,000 if they were raised to 100 per cent.
As well, administration was asked to investigate spreading the fees over two or three years. Increasing the fees over two years — the option that trustees ultimately selected — will see the division incur a $8,709 deficit in 2021-2022 and achieve cost recovery in 2022-2023.
If the fees were raised over three years to $396.50 in 2021-2022, $433 in 2022-2023 and finally $470 in 2023-2024, the division would incur cost overruns of $11,000 and $5,600 in those subsequent years.
"Please keep in mind … these options for cost recovery over two or three years assume that costs remain the same. And costs usually never remain the same,” said Leigh.
Because of that, Leigh suggested the fees will be revisited every year to make sure the division’s fees achieve cost recovery.
Leigh said administration’s recommendation was to achieve cost recovery in one year by increasing fees to $450 in 2021-2022, with Kindergarten and preschoolers paying 100 per cent.
Garbutt stressed that achieving cost recovery was important because it otherwise meant taking funds meant for another purpose and using them to provide a service regarded as a courtesy.
Trustee Jackie Carson questioned the basis for charging Kindergarten students 100 per cent of the fees charged to other in-town riders, noting that Kindergarteners in Barrhead and Westlock only attend school on certain days.
Leigh said the rationale for charging Kindergarteners 100 per cent is that they are taking up a seat “that could potentially be used by somebody else who would pay the $450.”
Trustee Wendy Scinski acknowledged that none of the students riding in-town transportation receive funding from the province and the goal should be to achieve cost recovery.
However, she felt that increasing the fees to $450 in one year is “a big jump" for parents paying those fees, particularly those families utilizing in-town transportation for Kindergarten students or families with multiple children riding in-town buses.
“As a board, we were under the impression that it was cost recovery, and this has been an error in what we knew to be true,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s fair and reasonable to hit parents with that full cost recovery in one year.”
Trustee Jackie Comeau said she was in agreement with Garbutt, pointing out that the money used for in-site transportation could result in longer bus ride times in rural areas.
“And we actually are getting funded for that. We’re not getting funded for this,” she said.
Carson said she agreed that Pembina Hills needed to get to cost recovery, but it was not the fault of parents that the division had made the mistake of thinking they achieved it.
“I feel that we need to take some of that onus on ourselves, and penalizing parents with a jump in fees over one year seems unfair to me,” she said.
“We’re in a pandemic. People have lost their jobs. And I just think that getting to this cost recovery over a number of years is more reasonable.”
Carson added that she believed they needed to keep the Swan Hills route and that combining Westlock and Barrhead were fair options. However, charging 100 per cent of fees to Kindergarteners when they aren’t riding a full week didn’t make sense to her.
Board chair Jennifer Tuininga stressed that the division must get to cost recovery, noting that parents have gotten “a very good deal” over the last number of years because the division was subsidizing the service.
“I don’t think it sends the right message to say we are going to subsidize in-town fees but not elsewhere,” she said, adding that she still believed that Swan Hills needs to keep its route.
Trustee Kerry McElroy said he looked at the issue from a per-ride perspective and a fee of $470 breaks down to $2.60 per ride, noting he supported administration’s recommendation.
Over 180 school days, the difference between a $300 fee and a $450 fee is $1 per day per student, he added.
“I don’t think (the increase) is as big an issue as we think it is,” he said.
Finally, trustee Judy Lefebvre said she agreed that raising the fees by $110 in one year is a lot of money for parents, especially for families with multiple children riding in-town buses, and “we are in hard times.”
Eventually the board voted on a motion to increase the fees to $450 in 2022-2023, which was defeated 3-3. McElroy, Comeau and Tuininga voted in favour.
A second motion to raise the fees to $470 over two years was then put forward and defeated 3-3, with Carson, Scinski and Lefebvre voting in favour.
Deadlocked, the board held more debate and held two short breaks so administration could do some calculations. In the end, a third motion was put forward with the same wording as the second, and it was approved 5-1. Tuininga voted against it.
Incidentally, fees for rural students accessing alternate schools (ie. schools outside of the attendance area they live in) will remain at $460 per student per year, while the fee for alternate site requests will stay at $50 per site.