LAKELAND - Northern Lights Public Schools (NLPS) is experiencing continued service disruptions for school bus services, across the Lakeland.
A lack of qualified bus drivers and rising insurance costs for bus contractors, has led to daily bus cancellations for some students and has forced parents to arrange alternative transportation for their kids, says Nicole Garner, the communications and public relations manager at NLPS.
Shortages in service and staff have been an issue for a couple of years, but lately, it’s been significantly challenging due to the addition of increased insurance costs over the last two years — going from $1,800 per year up to $5,000 — along with increases in fuel prices, forcing many contractors not to return this year.
“Over the last few years, we were really aware that costs were increasing for drivers. There has been ongoing fuel increases, parts and servicing, and even the cost to buy new buses if they have to replace one that has gone up,” she said.
Many bus services across the Lakeland are small contractors, who feel the increases more acutely, Garner said. They barely have more than a handful of staff, and are operating school buses the best they can, with limited working hours and the small amount of money they earn.
Additional costs, like the Mandatory Entry Level Training Program (MELT), which is mandated by the province, and access to that training for rural operators, add to the challenges.
“There are a number of hours that someone has to be behind the wheel of a bus, plus in-classroom training before they can even start driving. The training costs money, and then you don’t have that driver on the road for a period of time. That’s going to cost a contractor… between $5,000 and $10,000. The reason for the difference in price is because we are in a rural area and a lot of the training centers for that are in the city," said Garner.
Traditionally, busing costs are paid largely through the fee structure paid by families using the service. Several years ago, NLPS and other area school divisions began offering bus service for no charge to students living more than two and a half kilometres from their school. This year, NLPS officials offered a three per cent wage increase to bus contractors, taking the funding from internal budgets instead of increasing costs to families.
“There is not much we can do when we’re working within somewhat of a fixed amount for transportation,” she said, explaining that raising fees or returning back to an all-pay system are not favourable options.
While some of the increased costs in recent years could be linked to some trickle-down effects of the global coronavirus pandemic, some factors in the busing issue are direct results of the pandemic
Bus drivers who request time off for health or emergent reasons have also affected routes due to a lack of coverage, Garner said. The task of finding someone to cover shifts and the fear of losing time due to health has impacted driver's morale, making the job stressful for everyone involved.
“If they get sick they used to have someone they could call to fill in for them, take their route if they needed to go to Edmonton for a medical appointment or if they were too sick to drive their bus. What has happened is we don’t have spares or backup drivers anymore…Now, there is no one to fill in for them and we have to shut down the route for the day, which means that parents need to find alternative transportation for their children,” Garner said.
Those parents and care-givers are one of the bright spots in the difficult issue, says Garner, crediting and praising the efforts of families to get children into the classrooms.
Families have been very accommodating during these difficult times. One example is a route outside Bonneyville, in the Moose Lake area, that was cancelled for some time after the contractor resigned. Neighbours have now been helping neighbours. While the disruption has disappointed families, they have worked together to create a carpool schedule to get kids to school.
“Generally, parents are understanding… but when we have this long [of a] time where we don’t have a driver, like the one route that the contractor gave notice on, we were unable to have it filled since early October, and parents are getting a little frustrated.”
Despite the disruptions, frustrations and challenges, at this time, NLPS students' learning objectives have not been impacted, Garner said.
“I don’t think we are at the point where a student hasn’t been at school for a significant amount of time because of busing, but it certainly is an inconvenience to parents. They need to get to work and get their kids to school on time, and we certainly want to be providing those services for those students,” she said, admitting that new ideas for solving the busing issue — that doesn’t involve taking money from already tight educational budgets — are not easy to find.
“The other option would be to pull money out of instruction, which is basically the money that we put into our classrooms... That’s not really something we want to do either because of course, the goal is to keep as much of the money we are given in the classroom.”
One new approach being rolled out is an in-house busing program to run alongside existing contract services, where the division hires drivers, pays for training and supplies buses. Currently a pilot project, the idea still needs more study, including possibly sharing the project with other regional school divisions. At the same time, division officials are already joining with other school boards across Alberta to lobby the provincial government for additional funding to support commuters, increase reliable service and ease the financial burdens of local contractors, she said.
The school board is actively looking to hire qualified drivers who are trained or anyone who is interested, Garner said. To apply, get in touch with NLPS’s Director of Transportation by calling 780-826-6038.
Throughout the challenges, the school board appreciates the sacrifices students, parents and contractors have made while they make every effort to find resolutions.