Students will not have to pay to get on the yellow school bus after all.
Trustees of School District 20 (SD20) met for a special meeting on Tuesday, which Superintendent Bill Ford called following the ministry’s news that $15 million was added to the education budget for standard bus service to catchment schools.
School districts have until Sept. 30 to apply for respective funding, but Ford says the rush to meet ahead of the first day of class will relieve SD20 parents and students who may not have registered yet or paid for the service.
“We could have held off but with school starting, we have fees attached,” he said. “With busing starting up and families that may not have paid or should have paid we thought, ‘What a mess.’
“If we could take care of this before school starts, we thought, ‘Let’s do that.’”
The “new” money, $243,000 for SD20, comes with the caveat that a Transportation Plan must first be submitted to the province for approval and respective funding can only be used to eliminate bus fees for the 2016/17 school year.
“On Aug. 10 we received an invitation for a conference call and were very surprised to hear about a funding announcement,” Ford began.
“It was something that we were absolutely not expecting, funding to improve transportation services to students across the province,” he added. “So presented for you is work staff did on very short notice, our ultimate goal is if the board approves the application to the ministry and subsequently our plan is approved, we would like to get on with refunding those fees prior to school starting.”
The board unanimously agreed to forward the transportation details to this ministry this week, which means the district can get on with related refunds once the plan is approved.
That’s good news for parents of 1,300 students already registered for the bus – fees collected to date near $100,000.
Parents were resigned and responded very well by registering and paying their fees either in full or on a payment plan, said Secretary Treasurer Natalie Verigin.
“The process went well,” she explained, referring to the district’s new online payment system. “And now we are going to unwind it all and try to get the money back to all the parents (once the plan is approved) as soon as possible.”
The new software came at a cost $20,000, but it allows online payment as well as the launch of a critical SD20 upgrade – a “zonar” card, otherwise known as a bus pass.
For the first time in SD20 history, each student that is registered for the bus service will be issued a pass.
And students will be required to use the pass every time they board the school bus – the card is chipped and will be swiped upon entry and exit.
“We are in a place now that we are going to insist that bus passes be used because that gives us the data we need to look at creating efficiences,” Ford said. “So the board needs to know that we are going to draw a line in the sand and say we’ve developed a process around using a bus pass.”
Granted each card swipe will create baseline data on service usage throughout the year, it’s the real-time information that will come in handy.
“It’s really about safety,” said Ford. “Occasionally a (student) will get off at the wrong stop, there’s panic, and it’s a terrible situation. Zonar allows us to know when kids get on and off the bus – so we are going to insist that all students use that, it’s an awesome feeling that we are going to know when kids are on the bus and when kids are off the bus.”
The new bus pass system will roll out once the transportation plan is approved at the ministry level, parents will be given the heads up shortly after, including the replacement fee for a lost card.
“It’s an opportunity for us to actually get to the edge of being able to create those (busing) efficiencies,” Ford said. “We need to carry forward, so the board needs to know that’s a message that will go out to the community … we need to do this as part of operations, for us to do a better and more efficient job.”
All the changes around busing – whether or not to charge fees, then amend those fees, and now dismiss those fees has brought heavy toil to the school district.
“Despite the fact that through the budget process the board made a very difficult decision to start charging busing fees to help with the deficit we are facing, and despite the fact that<sp