'It's not safe:' Protesters worry about student safety on Calgary Transit after school buses axed

More than 100 parents and students gathered Tuesday to protest the Calgary Board of Education's decision to end bus service for alternative programs at several middle schools and have kids use public transit instead.

Calgary Board of Education under fire for ending bus service to alternative programs in Grades 6 to 9

Bal Brajapati, a Grade 7 student, says she doesn't feel safe taking public transit to get to classes after the Calgary Board of Education eliminated school bus service for her program. (James Young/CBC)

More than 100 parents and students gathered Tuesday to protest the Calgary Board of Education's decision to end bus service for some middle-school alternative programs and have kids use public transit instead.

Arshdeep Bhatia, whose daughters attend Sir Wilfrid Laurier School, said she and other parents are particularly worried about their kids' safety.

"There are so many concerns with transit," she said.

"We're talking about kids who are 10 years old."

Bal Brajapati, a Grade 7 student who said she faces a 30-minute trip on a Calgary Transit bus to get to class, echoed those concerns.

"It's not safe to go alone," she said.

Calgary parents have been raising similar concerns about the transportation changes for months.

A group of parents and kids gathered outside city hall to protest against changes to the CBE's transportation policy. 0:27

Hundreds of people filled the gymnasium at Senator Patrick Burns School in May to complain to CBE officials. Some parents said their kids were facing one-way trips that involved multiple buses and a C-Train ride in order to get to Spanish- or English-language classes that aren't available at their local schools.

Roughly 2,000 middle school students transitioned from school bus service to Calgary Transit in the previous school year, according to the CBE, and another 1,300 students in Grades 6 to 9 will make the shift starting in September.

CBE's administrators and its elected school trustees have said the policy change comes in the wake of provincial government restrictions on several school fees, including transportation.

The protesters gathered outside city hall on Tuesday. (James Young/CBC)

The cost of running school buses to the alternative programs was being subsidized through the use of funds intended for classroom instruction, according to the CBE.

"This is a deficit that the CBE can no longer continue to generate," the board said in a handout to parents in May.

But in June, Education Minister David Eggen noted the CBE received a 3.8 per cent increase in operating funds, $18 million to help reduce school fees and another $13 million through the new Classroom Improvement Fund.  

"CBE continues to contend that they need to increase fees dramatically on some parents," he said at the time.

"My office has heard from countless families in recent days who are worried about the impact these changes will have — and I am concerned, too. That's why our government has decided that the most significant proposed increases will now require my review and approval."

The minister also ordered a review of the CBE's overall operations.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, who attended Tuesday's protest in downtown Calgary, said the CBE has "a lot to answer for," in his view.

Greg Clark is the MLA for Calgary-Elbow and leader of the Alberta Party. (James Young/CBC)

"While I do have some sympathy about certain funding envelopes, I really think the CBE needs to sharpen their pencils and look very hard at what their overall plans are," he said.

"I've heard from many parents who say that they may have to make that very difficult choice of taking their child out of the public system," Clark added.

"Other parents need to make that very difficult choice of moving their kids to a different school, moving them away from their friends. That's not OK. There's no reason that this should be happening."

'We want the yellow school buses back'

In response to a request for comment, the CBE sent an unsigned, emailed statement.

"For the past two years, the CBE has been working towards developing a long-term, sustainable transportation system," the email said.

"We are making a number of scheduled changes for the 2017-18 school year that will eliminate the need to subsidize the costs of transportation from the larger CBE budget. We will continue to ensure the delivery of safe and efficient transportation for students."

Prayag Dalbhatwala, a Grade 6 student, said he feels anything but safe since having to take Calgary Transit instead of a school bus.

"I felt scared because, like, it's a public transit bus and anyone could do anything," he said.

"We want the yellow school buses back."

Grade 6 student Prayag Dalbhatwala wants school bus service back because he doesn't feel safe taking public transit at his age. (James Young/CBC)

With files from Dan McGarvey