Public bus fees rise over $100

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Wright rails against province

Some St. Albert parents will have to pay more to bus their kids to school this fall in part due to the province’s decision to eliminate certain bus fees.

St. Albert Public Schools trustees voted 4-0 in favour of the 2017-2018 transportation fee schedule Wednesday. Trustee Gerry Martins was absent.

Sturgeon Public School Division trustees also voted on new, higher fees that same night.

Both boards had to rework their bus fees to deal with Bill 1, which has passed third reading but is not yet in force.

The province pays the transportation costs for all students who live more than 2.4 kilometres from their designated school. Sturgeon Schools, St. Albert Public and Greater St. Albert Catholic have for years charged those students an additional fee to offset the cost of busing students that live 2.4 km or less from school, which the province does not cover. Bill 1 bans this practice, leaving some boards with big holes in their budgets.

The situation was even worse for St. Albert Public, as they were poised to lose about $225,000 in provincial bus money when Lois E. Hole School opened this fall and put many students within the 2.4 km limit.

St. Albert Public board officials voted to raise fees by $100 for Level 2 students (those who live 1.6 to 2.4 km from school) and by $160 for Level 3 ones (those who otherwise aren’t qualified for provincial support). That works out to $410 and $500 a year for those students, respectively.

This still leaves the board with a $200,000 deficit to fill with reserves and instructional dollars, said board secretary-treasurer Michael Brenneis.

“It clearly is a difficult area.”

Brenneis said he considered eliminating service for Level 2 students, but found that those students were so entrenched in the bus system that he’d have to rebuild every route if he removed them. St. Albert Transit was reluctant to bus elementary kids and was too busy in the morning with commuters to Edmonton to handle students in town.

The board had previously heard that bus fees were set to rise for a variety of factors before Bill 1 hit the table. While the province had agreed to pay boards the money they could no longer collect as a result of Bill 1, Brenneis said the board would still be $200,000 short, as Alberta Education was paying them based on their 2015-16 fees, which doesn’t account for sprawl, higher costs and St. Albert’s new school.

Trustee Sheri Wright criticized the province for putting the board in this situation, saying that boards had to start charging bus fees because the province had chipped away at education funding for years.

“I don’t feel there’s a lot of thought being given to this,” Wright said.

This was a tough decision, but the board should not ask little kids to walk 2.4 km to school across busy, icy, snowy streets, said board chair Glenys Edwards. She was also concerned about how these fees would affect students attending programs of choice.

The board also moved to cap the maximum amount of bus fees a family would have to pay at 2.5 kids worth instead of the current three. Brenneis said keeping it at three would mean asking some families to pay $1,500, which administration felt was too much to ask.

Sturgeon and GSACRD

Sturgeon School Division voted to raise its fees by $25 to $125 for its students, said board secretary-treasurer Iva Paulik. Headstart program students will now pay $275 instead of $150, for example, while students who live within 2.4 km of their designated school will now pay $275 instead of $250.

“It was a tough decision, but there was really no other choice,” she said.

The board also eliminated its early bird rates, which, had they been maintained, would have offered substantial discounts to parents who signed up for busing early in the year. Paulik said the board simply couldn’t afford to keep them, as about two-thirds of board families paid those rates.

Greater St. Albert Catholic expects to have to increase its bus rates, but won’t debate them until May 15, said board spokesperson Carol Bruineman.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.