Mike Bernier said the goal is to remove bus fees for almost all students in eight school districts that currently charge parents a fee, as well as to prevent districts from reducing or eliminating services due to budget cuts in future years.
“The whole point of this is we’ve heard from parents on some of the challenges, so our hope is by the end of September every school district that wishes to — which I hope is all — will be applying for these funds,” he said. “Those school districts that do charge, the number-one criteria is they get the funds, which will offset what they are collecting, and they have to eliminate ridership fees. Going forward, parents will not have to pay for busing.”
The $14.7-million “Student Transportation Fund” program marks an abrupt reversal for the Ministry of Education, which has in the past said it is not responsible for ensuring school districts offer bus service and that local trustees should find the money within existing budgets.
Bernier said solving the bus problem was one of his top priorities after being named minister in July 2015, because he has seen first-hand the school bus challenge in his riding of Peace River South.
Eight school districts currently charge for school bus service, including Maple Ridge, Langley and Chilliwack. Chilliwack fees are as high as $215 per rider, and it’s $250 in Langley. Maple Ridge had previously eliminated bus service, but was planning — prior to the funding announcement — to restore a pilot program with high fees.
School districts will have until Sept. 30 to apply for the bus money. They have all finalized their budgets for next year, which includes bus service levels and fees. But Bernier said he has spoken to many superintendents who say they can make adjustments if they receive the new money.
Parents who have already paid could be offered refunds. Some students, such international students or those who travel outside their catchment areas, may still have to pay bus fees, depending on the district.
The last-minute cash for school buses comes as the Liberal government prepares for the May 2017 provincial election and tries to appease angry parents, many of whom blame the province for continued cutbacks and teacher layoffs at school districts.
Premier Christy Clark announced a $2.7-million rural school fund in June, amid political backlash over school closure in smaller communities.