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SD62 school bus challenges contribute to service shortfall

Short-notice cancellation of two bus routes over three days highlights driver shortage and overall bus transportation costs.

Thursday October 21, 2021 | LANGFORD, BC

Analysis by Mary P Brooke, Editor | Island Social Trends

In the last couple of days at least two bus routes for Sooke School District (SD62) schools (one route in Langford serving Spencer Middle School and Belmont Secondary, and the other in Sooke serving two schools) had to be cancelled due to a shortage of bus drivers. One of those SD62 bus routes is cancelled again today.

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The school district is always hiring new drivers (jobs posted on the SD62 employment page), but it seems that employee vacation time is also a factor this week, based on information from the school district.

In response to these shortfall, parents of registered bus users (i.e. their children) have been faced with finding alternatives, their own sort of backup plan after registering for the bus transportation service with SD62. Choices will have included walking, cycling, being driven by car.

Option to use walk, cycle or use public transit:

MArgot Swinburson
SD62 Trustee Margot Swinburnson at the May 25, 2021 board meeting [MS Teams]

Last night at the SPEAC (SD62 parent council) meeting, SD62 Trustee Margot Swinburnson answered parent questions about the cancelled bus routes in a way that provided no commitment to change anything, as the SD62 board knows what it’s up against (in terms of bus funding, operations, a fast-growing student population, and a school bus driver shortage that is not unique to SD62).

One parent during the online meeting described how several kids stood outdoors for an hour one afternoon after school, for a bus that never came.

Swinburnson stayed big-picture with her response. She suggested alternatives like walking or cycling when the buses are not available, wrapping it in a push for ‘active transportation’ while knowing full well that distances are long and not necessarily safe or appropriate in inclement weather.

Swinburnson also introduced the idea that older students might choose to use public transportation (in the larger areas, like Langford) as an alternative to the school bus option. Presently in Greater Victoria (and across BC) there is free bus transportation for kids up to age 12, as provided by BC Transit since September 1, 2021. Over the past year or two, SD62 Chair Ravi Parmar has been enthusiastic about free bus passes for youth on BC Transit busses.

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SD62 offers Safe Paths to School for parent consideration and student consideration, including walkways, bike paths, and safer streets. The Capital Regional District Active Transportation & Healthy Communities Program is relied upon for guidance and support.

Bus services within education model:

For several years the SD62 board has debated the school district’s role in providing bus transportation.

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School bus at Willway Elementary in Langford [Island Social Trends – May 2021]

It’s a costly service that requires a high degree of attention to detail around the cost and timeline for bus procurement, mechanical management of the buses, fuel costs, insurance, route development and management by administration and transportation personnel.

There are debates at the board level about whether it should be a ‘free’ service (paid for by the school district) or requiring per-user fees; a compromise position over the last year or two has resulted in an administration or registration fee that is said to be applied to ‘safety’ processes. “The safety enhancement fee will be put towards new safety equipment,” as stated on the SD62 Transportation information page.

That fee is presently $25 safety fee per rider for the 2021-2022 school year; there was a $100 late registration fee imposed as well (after August 31, 2021), as a deterrent to casual registration.

A few years ago a grant was introduced from the Ministry of Education to school districts providing bus transportation, to help with costs. But as the size of the SD62 student population grows (e.g. over 700 new students for the 2021-2022 year, which is one of these highest increases ever) the stipend doesn’t cover all costs. These debates and challenges will only become more complex.

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SD62 Trustee Wendy Hobbs has been particularly vocal in recent years about having an administrative fee, implying that if school buses are perceived as ‘free’ that people might sign up if they don’t always need the service. Hobbs has chaired the SD62 Audit committee for a few years. SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull has presented the pros and cons and intricate details of bus transportation funding, over the years.

SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull
SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull at the board’s Resource Committee meeting on June 9, 2020. [Island Social Trends file photo]

As SD62 grows rapidly (pushed forward by increasing housing options in Langford, Colwood and Sooke), there are additional cost and organizational pressures to provide the same level of bussing. There has been board debate over the years as to whether bussing is an obligation; technically speaking, it’s not a requirement of any school board to provide that service.

The SD62 school district has rural and urban components to its bus routes. Bus services are provided to in-catchment students only (with exceptions for Academy course participation, students attending their catchment overflow school, French Immersion students, and those taking dual-credit courses (which might be offered only at particular schools).

About the fleet:

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SD62 bus depot on Amy Road in Langford. [Island Social Trends – May 2021]

There are 40 buses in the fleet at this time, with 37 on full-time for runs, and three spares. Spares are used to sub-in for another bus or for field trips.

Currently there are 37 drivers and one spare driver. “If anyone needs time off or is ill, we lose a route,” says SD62 media relations rep Lindsay Vogan.

There are two depots for SD62 buses, given the wide geographical area served by the growing school district. One is in Sooke and the other is on Amy Road in Langford.

Two buses are electric at this time, the rest are diesel. Maintenance is more significant for diesel-powered buses, so over time the SD62 administration has recommended to the board that more electric buses be added to the fleet as the older buses wear out.

Transportation system management:

The SD62 transportation service intricacies of bus costing, budget management and registration processes (including an IT back end) are presented to the SD62 trustees in detail by SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Cull at board and committee meetings through the school-year cycle as required.

The previous SD62 Transportation Manager, Tracey Syrota, guided SD62 to new successful heights with their bus fleet management and bus registration systems over the past two years; she has moved on to a Transportation Manager position in Vernon, BC. The final stages of SD62 Transportation Manager hiring are underway, says Vogan.

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School bus of the SD62 fleet on Highway 14 (Sooke Road) within busy after-school traffic in Sooke core area [West Shore Voice News file photo – Nov 2018]

===== About the writer:

Mary Brooke, editor, West Shore Voice News
Mary P Brooke, Editor and Publisher, Island Social Trends.

Island Social Trends Editor Mary P Brooke has followed the news of SD62 at the board and committee level since 2014, observing up close the decision-making during expansion of the school system in the west shore and Sooke for over seven years.

Articles have been published over the years in her series of regional news publications (MapleLine Magazine, Sooke Voice News, West Shore Voice News, and now Island Social Trends).

Mary’s now-grown children attended schools in SD61 (Greater Victoria), SD62 (Sooke) and SD72 (Campbell River).

Over the years, Ms Brooke was active in school committees including fundraising and transportation (she led parents in getting sidewalks in Oak Bay in 2006-2007, and spearheaded for better parking at one of the Sooke elementary schools in 2007-2008).