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Maple Ridge school board eliminates school bus fees

Roughly 350 SD 42 students rely on the school bus to get to and from school. - TIMES files
Roughly 350 SD 42 students rely on the school bus to get to and from school.
— image credit: TIMES files

Parents can breathe a sigh of relief.

School District 42 has abolished school bus fees for its roughly 300 regular riders, following an announcement of a new transportation fund from the province.

On Aug. 10, Education Minister Mike Bernier announced a new $14.7 million fund to assist with student bus service, with just over $180,000 available to the local school district.

Through email, SD 42 board members gave direction to staff to announce the changes on Aug. 11.

School board chair Mike Murray told The TIMES the new funding means more money can be directed into classrooms.

"Needless to say we welcome any additional resources the ministry is prepared to send our way and we are pleased the government is recognizing what a significant burden providing a transportation system is on boards of education," he said.

In order for the district to take advantage of the new funds, the province requires a plan on how the money will be used to "boost transportation services," by Sept. 30.

Such boosts can include adding new routes, improving disability access and bus stops or improving access to public transit.

To qualify for the new funds, the district also had to drop fees charged to parents for school bus services.

Parents have until Aug. 19 to register.

Courtesy rider fees remain

Although some parents now have one less cheque to write, parents of courtesy riders are still expected to pay $315 per school year in order to ride the bus.

Last year, there were a bit more than 30 students using the service as courtesy riders.

The surplus gained from this fee, and any additional monies available with the newest boost, must be used for "enhancements," according to guidelines from the province.

The school board has not made a decision yet on what this money will used for.

Many changes have been made

In 2013, the district introduced school bus fees for the first time.

"We said when we first initiated the fee system two years ago that we would be faced with cancelling our bus system for regular students altogether  if government continued to download costs while our expenditures continued to rise," Murray said.

And since then, several announcements have been made about changes in bus fees and eligibility during the past year.

Since nothing had changed last year, Murray said, the school board made the decision to cancel bus services all together, effective September 2016.

The announcement led to public outcry from parents of more than 350 students who rely on the service.

In May, the province boosted the local district with $631,000. Local MLA's suggested the new funds be used to subsidize transportation costs, and the monies would cover 97 per cent of the necessary $650,000 needed to fund bus costs.

At the time, Murray referred to the funds as "a step in the right direction."

Then, in June, the school board announced that the buses would continue, with fees increasing from $215 to $416, and courtesy riders were no longer allowed to use the service (children who live just under the high walk limits or children who go to a school outside of their catchment).

A Maple Ridge parent said these new, more increased, fees would still make the service out of reach for some local parents, and no courtesy rider policy would mean students would still have to walk far distances.

This decision was changed again last week, with fees being reduced back to $215, and the board reinstating its courtesy rider policy.

And now, after a year of ups and downs, Murray said this could have been avoided if the funding was provided earlier, avoiding "the angst both parents and the board have gone through over these past many months."

With that said, he added. "we are most grateful at this point for the work of our parents in meeting with MLAs and writing to government to express their concerns, to government for listening and to our staff for developing a more streamlined system."

For more information on how to register, visit sd42.ca.

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