The annual cost of taking a school bus in Hay River has been finalized.
The fee will be $325 per student up to a maximum of two students, and if a family has three or more children taking the bus, the cost will be a flat $800.
“We thought it would be fair to at least try to put some sort of a cap in place to help those families with multiple children that required busing service,” said Mark Harris, chairperson of the Hay River District Education Authority (DEA).
The DEA made its decision on the amounts to be charged in mid-August.
On Aug. 22, an information sheet was sent to all mailboxes in Hay River explaining which students will have first priority to buy the passes – basically those living farthest away from the schools – and on which dates the passes can be purchased.
“Anyone who does not have a bus pass on Monday, Sept. 9th, will not be allowed to ride the bus,” the information sheet states.
The school bus fee has been controversial since parents and guardians were informed of the plan in a letter sent home with students in late June.
Harris said the fee is being introduced because only about half the cost of busing is covered by funding from the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, which goes through the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC).
“So, the only way for us to basically make up for the gap in the funding was to go to a user-pay system,” he said, explaining the DEA did not feel comfortable paying for busing by pulling money from things like school operations and material allocations.
The DEA had two options, he added. “One was to provide busing service and a user fee to go along with that. Or the second option was to just not provide busing service altogether.”
It is believed to be the first school bus fee in Hay River, although fees are already charged in Yellowknife and Fort Smith.
Just over 200 students use three school buses in Hay River to get to its four schools.
Harris was asked about the possibility that some families won’t pay the fee and their children may have to walk to school, perhaps significant distances.
“I can’t say that it’s not a concern. It could be a financial burden for certain individuals and certain families,” he said, adding those families would be directed to social services or perhaps Aboriginal governments for possible help.
Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson brought busing concerns to the legislative assembly on Aug. 15.
“This has upset a number of people in the community, and understandably so,” he said. “No one wants to pay yet another fee.”
Simpson said people fear it could negatively impact children’s attendance at school, noting some students live up to 25 kilometres away.
Simpson asked Education, Culture and Employment Minister Caroline Cochrane why some of the SSDEC’s accumulated surplus, which he estimated at over $3 million last year, wasn’t used to pay for busing.
Simpson noted the minister had ordered school boards to reduce their surpluses, which in the case of the SSDEC would be about a $2-million reduction.
Cochrane said the SSDEC never identified busing as an issue in its surplus plan.
“So I never knew it was an issue until it came forward,” she said. “In fact, the MLA brought it forward with a letter from a parent. That was the point that I knew it became an issue.”
Cochrane said her concern is that children get to school.
“So I have instructed my staff to get down there and work with them and see what we can do to assist them,” she said of the SSDEC.
The minister also noted there are subsidies for children from low-income homes.
“If they qualify for income support, we are willing to include the cost of getting to school and school supplies within our funding formula,” she said.
The SSDEC declined to comment on spending to reduce its surplus, explaining an audit has not yet been completed for the last school year.
The bus fees do not affect students from Enterprise or those attending Ecole Boreale.
The Hamlet of Enterprise operates its own school bus, while a percentage of seats on the Hay River buses are allotted to Ecole Boreale and paid for by the French-language school board.