CBE board chair defends school bus changes, says 'sometimes choice costs'

Changes to the bus schedule coupled with shifts in start times at many Calgary schools have left parents stressed out about getting their children to school on time.

Nenshi says city may change public transit routes or frequencies to accommodate extra demand, if necessary

CBE board chair Joy Bowen-Eyre, responding to concerns over cuts to bus scheduling, says " if there was an infinite amount of money, we wouldn’t be having this conversation this morning, because then we could provide everything for every student." (CBC)

If your kids attend an alternative program in the Calgary school system, don't expect it to get any less challenging for them to make it to school on time.

That was the message Tuesday, when Calgary Board of Education board chair Joy Bowen-Eyre addressed concerns coming from parents, many of whom say a combination of bus cuts and new school start times have left them stressed out and bewildered.

Stretching dollars

Bowen-Eyre says the problem can be boiled down to one word: money.

"If there was an infinite amount of money, we wouldn't be having this conversation this morning, because then we could provide everything for every student," Bowen-Eyre said on The Calgary Eyeopener, "

"The difficult part for school boards is [that] we're given a limited amount of funding, and we have to make the decisions  that best meets the needs of the majority of all students," she said.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says the city will "make sure for as long as this system continues that ... students will have a safe and convenient ride to school." (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

'Sometimes choice costs'

Bowen-Eyre pointed to alternative programs, which she said are quite popular with Calgarians, as one of the complicating factors, because parents choose to send their kids to schools in distant parts of the city.

Students attending their designated community school, or those living more than 2.4 km away from school, are eligible for a government program that waives school bus fees for students, but not if they choose to attend an alternative program.

Bowen said those students will have to go to a "congregated bus stop" for pick-up, which can be quite far from their homes. 

"At the CBE, we support [school] choice. We love choice. We like that Calgarians want choice, and we want to ensure that their kids have those choices," she said.

"The government believes in choice as well. But sometimes choice costs, and that's the big dilemma [we face]."

Shifting start times cuts transportation costs

In order to save money on transportation costs, the school board shuffled school-day start and end times this year at 93 institutions within the district by about 30 minutes, Bowen-Eyre said. 

"Any school bus we put out into the streets of Calgary costs us $55,000 regardless of how many students are on that bus," she said.

"So the more students we can get on that bus, and the more routes we can do, the better the cost savings we can have, because we don't want to take money out of the classrooms to support transportation."

Nenshi says public transit ready to adjust

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city is monitoring demand for public transit "very closely" to see what effect these CBE changes may have on Calgary Transit demand.

"School busing is not, truth be told, a city responsibility, but we do operate the transit system and a safe system where kids can feel comfortable and safe taking the bus to school, as I did every day from grade 7 on," Nenshi said.

He said this might require changing individual routes or their frequencies, and he said Calgary Transit drivers would be "extra attentive" to the needs of students to make sure they get on and off at the right times and places. 

"We'll make sure for as long as this system continues that those students will have a safe and convenient ride to school."

More CBE consultations planned

Bowen-Eyres says the province and Calgary Board of Education will continue to consult with parents in a series of meetings, including one scheduled for later this month.

"How do we fund it?" she asked. "Who pays? Do you pay for every bus? These are big questions that need to be grappled with going forward, because we know our province is in an economic downturn. And we do see some light at the end of the tunnel there, but in the immediate future, there's bills that need to be paid," she said.

"I think it's going to be a good conversation. I'm looking to being a part of it."

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener.