Winnipeg School Division looks at fast-tracking 'empty-seat policy'

Winnipeg School Division chair Sherri Rollins brought a plan forward Monday that would allow students who otherwise don't qualify to ride the school bus on the bus, providing the bus has an empty seat.

School board chair says policy has worked in other large divisions in urban centres

Denise Jones' children aren't able to take the same school bus even though they go to the same school. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

The Winnipeg School Division is one step closer to changing a transportation policy that has left some parents frustrated after finding out their children wouldn't be allowed on the school bus this year.

A division policy that had allowed the parents or guardians of children who didn't qualify to take the bus — either because they lived too close or attended a "school of choice" as opposed to their catchment school — to pay a nominal fee to use the service was cancelled earlier this year as a cost-saving measure.

That's left parents like Denise Jones scrambling to make arrangements after learning her daughter wouldn't be allowed on the same school bus her son takes to school, even though the pair both go to the same school.

"Having the transportation to the school is critical for our family," said Jones, who attended a WSD board meeting Monday that saw trustees discuss the issue. "It's an important issue for our family and for others who have a similar situation with the two different schools.

"Some families have two different pick-up times and two different pick-up locations for their children every morning and that's not feasible."

Jones said the issue facing her family stems from the fact her daughter, who is now in Grade 2, had been moved from École La Vérendrye to a newer nearby school for the last two years because of a shortage of space at École La Vérendrye.

While her daughter has been grand-fathered back to École La Vérendrye this year, Jones said under the division's new bus policy, her daughter is considered to be going to a "school of choice" and isn't allowed to take the bus with her brother.

"For us it's keeping our kids in the same school since they're both in elementary school and quite young."

To make matters even more confusing for parents the division's new policy didn't apply to children enrolled in bilingual instruction.

The chair of the Winnipeg School Division, Sherri Rollins, said the division and trustees have been receiving an average of six calls a week since the changes were enacted in March.
Winnipeg School Division chair, Sherri Rollins. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

Rollins is proposing the division add an "empty-seat policy" to their transportation plan that would let a student who would otherwise be deemed ineligible for the bus take the bus, providing the bus has an empty seat open on its regular route.

It's a policy Rollins said is being used successfully by other large school divisions in major urban centres across Canada.

She brought the idea to her fellow trustees Monday, who voted in favour of fast-tracking the plan to the board's building and transportation committee with the hope trustees will be able to vote on the plan at the board's next regular meeting Oct. 2.

"With respect to the empty seat policy, I think all trustees are elected to serve parents and families, so all trustees are committed to finding solutions for families," she said after the meeting, adding other than minimal administrative costs, the plan would be essentially cost neutral.

That's important, said Rollins, considering the original change to the transportation policy was made to meet budgetary cuts imposed by the provincial government.

"We are facing cuts to education generally and at the end of the day the province spends $1 million on our $6 million transportation budget," she said. "So we're trying to find solutions that do not mean cuts to education and unfortunately logistics is what we looked at."

Jones said she appreciates trustees working to fast-track the "empty-seat policy" and is hopeful to see it implemented this fall.

"I don't want this issue to get buried," she said. "I think it's pretty clear what the issue is, I think it's pretty clear that an empty seat policy would support the parents, families, and the students most importantly, and if we could have that change happen sooner than later we would very much appreciate that."

With files from Erin Brohman