Jason Goovaerts says that his son and daughter shouldn’t have to stand beside a busy Highway 4 to be picked up by an overcrowded bus and brought to school.
But less money for busing equals fewer routes, fewer buses and limited options, School District 70 Superintendent Cam Pinkerton said.
Last year, Goovaerts’ children used to board the school bus at Winters Road, which lays just off Lakeshore Road and was a five-minute walk from their home.
That changed this year however. Now, the children walk a kilometre to their new stop at the corner of Lakeshore Road and Highway 4—which is in an 80-kilometre-per-hour traffic zone.
The move is a safety hazard and doesn’t make logistic sense, Goovaerts said. It’s difficult for large trucks to slow down for a school bus. And impatient drivers don’t wait for the bus and pass it instead, despite warning signals.
Goovaerts said that a better approach would be for the bus to drive another 30 seconds down the road. The bus could turn off at the former West Bay Hotel then come back up Lakeshore Road, then exit back onto the highway. “That makes more sense because most of the families live along there,” he said.
Another issue Goovaerts has is the increase in the number of students riding buses. “The kids say that it’s too overcrowded and that there are three and four to a seat,” he said.
Previously, there were two school buses that serviced Sproat Lake. “Now there’s just one, and it covers Lakeshore Road, Faber Road, Stirling Arm, McCoy Lake, and Great Central Lake,” he said.
The district also didn’t do a good enough job raising public awareness about the bus scheduling changes, Goovaerts said.
“My kids went to their stop on the first day and there was no bus. My wife noticed the scheduling change when she checked the school district’s website,” he said.
The Goovaerts aren’t alone. A group of parents complained to trustees about the new school bus system at School District 70’s Sept. 10 meeting.
It’s the trial run of the new system and there are some wrinkles to be ironed out yet, Pinkerton said. But one thing is clear: “We can’t go back to the way it was. That just isn’t possible,” he said.
The roots of the school busing issue go back a year and a half when the district announced that it was going to receive less money from the Ministry of Education for transportation.
District officials announced earlier this year that it would be taking steps to make up for the pending $750,000 budget hit. “But the school closure issue got the headlines,” Pinkerton said.
Now, there are three fewer buses running in Port Alberni; no bus in Bamfield; two fewer buses in Ucluelet/Tofino.
The district is also no longer allowing cross-boundary pickups-dropoffs, nor school of choice ones, he said. “We just don’t have the ability to accommodate that anymore.”
Pinkerton said he’s aware of the Goovaerts’ issue. The driver stops and follows all traffic rules, he said. But remedying the matter creates a chain reaction.
Driving further down the road and turning may not seem like much at first. “But we get 20 of these calls and making those changes ends up being cumulative: you can’t change one part of the system without having to make changes to all the other parts,” Pinkerton said.
The district is aware that there are particular issues in rural areas, such as animal contact, narrow roads, and no lighting, he said.
Trustees and staff will be listening to concerns from a parents group on Thursday. “We can look at the runs. We have some flexibility but we have to be mindful of the whole system,” Pinkerton said.