Unless more funding is found, the school bus service in Hay River will not be offered for the next school year.
That’s the stark warning in a May 25 notice to parents and guardians of students from the Hay River District Education Authority (HRDEA).
The notice stated that, starting in the 2021-22 school year, all student transportation services will be cancelled unless ongoing financial assistance is found.
“We will continue discussions trying to find additional funding, however, we find it prudent to provide notice at this time,” reads the statement from Mark Harris, the chairperson of the HRDEA.
The HRDEA has been providing a transportation program for students despite insufficient funding for years,” Harris continued. “Money has been taken directly out of school operation and maintenance, which has a direct effect on classroom budgets to make up for this shortfall, and most recently a user fee was charged in an attempt to try and make it work. This attempt failed and resulted in a drop in ridership as parents/guardians opted to find alternate transportation, and anticipated revenues were not received.”
The ridership fees were first introduced in the 2019-20 school year.
Harris noted that, as student enrolment numbers continue to drop, so does funding for all programming, including busing.
“Our schools have reached the breaking point where busing can no longer be supported under our current funding model,” he said.
According to Harris, the HRDEA has exhausted all its efforts to secure additional funding, including by reaching out to the Town of Hay River, the GNWT, the two Hay River MLAs, and the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), which declined to hold a special meeting on the issue.
“The HRDEA sees busing as an essential service and did not take this decision lightly, but unless ongoing additional funding is received or the current funding model changed, we are left with no other choice but to cancel this service altogether,” Harris stated.
The chairperson concluded his notice by encouraging parents and guardians to contact their MLAs to ask them to take action to help secure additional funds.
When contacted by The Hub, Harris explained the HRDEA receives $82,000 in funding for busing services, which leaves a shortfall of about $70,000 each year for the contracted cost of operating three buses.
The funding flows down from the Department of Education, Culture and Employment to the SSDEC, which distributes it to DEAs.
Harris noted the ridership fees cut a bit into the deficit, but in the first year they were introduced the bus service still had a $35,000 shortfall.
The chairperson said the goal is to obtain funding to cover the $70,000 shortfall without having to charge any fees.
The HRDEA has not received a lot of feedback on its announcement.
“It’s actually been probably quieter than I thought it would have been,” said Harris, noting he has seen some posts on Facebook.
The chairperson hopes parents and guardians will voice displeasure to their MLAs.
“I’m hoping that by taking this stand and standing up for ourselves that we come to a solution that works for us and our community, and hopefully it’s a solution that will work out long term so that we don’t have to go through this process again,” he said.
Curtis Brown, the superintendent of the SSDEC, said he applauds the efforts of the Hay River DEA to preserve busing, noting it has done everything in its power including taking monies from schools that are allocated for programs and staffing.
“They are the only community that I’m aware of that actually went as far as seeking and finding supplemental funding to purchase buses so that their contract with the service provider only needs to pay for the drivers, not the provision of the buses, as well,” Brown said. “But even with that, the contract is still too costly, more costly than what they get through formula funding.”
The SSDEC provided $390,000 to the Hay River DEA for the purchase of buses a year and a half ago, he noted.
That funding came from the SSDEC’s surplus, but that surplus will soon be gone. In September, the SSDEC distributed more of its surplus to member DEAs, including in Hay River.
As for why the SSDEC declined a special meeting on the busing issue, Brown said it has been discussed repeatedly for several years and the SSDEC had done everything it could to supplement funding, and it didn’t think a special meeting would be helpful or fruitful.
Plus, he said a special meeting would have set a precedent for other DEAs, and might have been counterproductive.