Education Minister David Eggen has vetoed one of St. Albert Public’s bus fees and ordered the board to issue refunds – a move that will cost the board some $35,000.
St. Albert Public Schools board members debated a letter sent by Eggen on their proposed bus fees at their regular meeting Wednesday.
The province passed Bill 1 earlier this year, which prevents school boards from charging fees for busing students who are more than 2.4 kilometres from their designated schools as of this September.
St. Albert Public eliminated those fees but also raised the fees for students who were not covered by Bill 1 (e.g. those that lived within 2.4 km of their school) by $100 or $160. Soon after, Eggen sent out a letter saying he would review every board’s bus fees to ensure they complied with Bill 1.
In an Aug. 11 email to board chair Glenys Edwards, Eggen said that he was unable to approve the board’s proposed change to its bus fee for kids who lived closer than 1.6 km from school or did not attend their designated school. Instead of increasing it to $500 from $390, he ordered the board to set the fee at $440 and to refund any excess cash it had collected.
Eggen also ordered the board to address several gaps in its fee policy relating to refunds and dispute resolution “at your next board meeting.” He approved of the rest of the board’s fees.
The board has made the requisite fee change and will issue about 729 refunds for a total of $35,000, said Michael Brenneis, the board’s secretary treasurer. This change, plus other factors such as the opening of Lois E. Hole School, would increase the board’s transportation deficit to about $250,000 from the $200,000 predicted earlier this year.
In an email, Alberta Education press secretary Lindsay Harvey said that any transportation fees that rise by more than five per cent require ministerial approval under Bill 1. St. Albert Public was one of seven boards directed to change its bus fees under the bill. Any boards that had collected excess fees were directed to issue refunds.
Outrage at board
Board superintendent Barry Wowk said the board had set its bus fees before the province issued its bus fee regulations under Bill 1 and had no idea that the fees would fall afoul of them. He voiced frustration with the fact that the minister was setting rules for bus fees on kids the province didn’t actually fund (i.e. those that lived within the 2.4 km limit).
Edwards said she was “appalled” by the idea that the minister wanted a list of all field trips teachers planned to hold in a school year by the previous May so he could approve any charges associated with them.
“Some of (our teachers) don’t even know what classes they’re going to be teaching” at that point, she said, let alone what field trip opportunities might suddenly pop up in a year.
While Eggen has said that he would allow boards to submit field trips for approval after May, trustee Cheryl Dumont criticized him for not consulting boards about this issue before bringing in Bill 1.
“We could have saved him a lot of headaches and ourselves a lot of work.”
Trustee Sheri Wright said boards only had to charge bus and field trip fees in the first place because the province wasn’t properly funding education.
“Government created this problem in the first place.”
Trustee Kim Armstrong said that Eggen was challenging the board’s autonomy. The board agreed with her suggestion that they make the policy changes Eggen requested but only after their usual multi-week public comment process instead of immediately as Eggen asked.