Bus funding model making rural Alberta schools inaccessible, say parents, schools

Rural Alberta communities are struggling to get enough funding for public school buses, especially as enrolment dwindles and schools close.

'I want to send my kids to school,' says mother forced to choose between home school and lengthy bus ride

Caroline Parke says she doesn't want her four-year-old daughter to spend hours on the bus every day, but adds her only other options are to home school or leave her family farm. (Supplied/Caroline Parke)

Rural Alberta communities are struggling to get enough funding for busing to public school, especially as enrolment dwindles and schools close.

Caroline Parke lives on a cattle farm near Tulliby Lake, about 250 kilometres east of Edmonton.

Her local school closed in 2011 after its enrolment dipped to 12 students.

Now the closest public school is in Marwayne, about 40 kilometres away. The mother of three said she's running out of time — and options —  before her oldest daughter starts kindergarten in September.

If a new route doesn't open soon, Parke said her four-year-old faces a lengthy ride in a school bus that takes three to a seat.

"She's still a little kid on the bus for over three hours a day. It's ridiculous," she said.

Caroline Parke planned to have another child, but says she can't do that if she has to home school her toddlers Henry, Shirley (left) and Susan (center). (Supplied/Caroline Parke)

Parke said she would rather home-school her toddler than force her to sit on a bus for hours each day. But with three children below the age of three at home, she's reconsidering her plan to have a fourth child as a result.

Her only other option is to abandon the family's sixth-generation farm so they can live closer to a public school.

"Alberta Education's mandate is to make education accessible to all children and I don't feel like it's accessible," Parke said.

'It's frustrating for everyone'

Darcy Eddleston is the board chair of Buffalo Trails Public Schools, Parke's school district.

Seven bus routes have been cut from the district in recent years because of insufficient funding. The remaining 100 buses are driving longer routes to compensate, Eddleston said.

"Really we just keep stumbling along the way we are because, as we lose students, (routes) get longer and there's less we can do about it," he said.

Government funding for Alberta's public school buses is based largely on how many students ride each bus. If enrolment decreases, so does funding for the district. 

But a decrease in enrolment doesn't necessarily shorten the length of a bus route, Eddleston said.

"There's got to be a way to recognize that in rural Alberta, we're having to travel farther and farther to pick up students," he said.

"It's frustrating for everybody. It's frustrating for the parents and it's frustrating for the school boards because we can't come up with a solution."

"I can see people coming from literally a mile away," Caroline Parke said about her rural property, which is about 40 kilometres from the closest school in Marwayne. (Supplied/ Caroline Parke)

To complicate matters, he said it's becoming increasingly difficult to hire school bus companies for rural routes.

"There's just no money in them," Eddleston said, adding that Alberta's new carbon levy has exacerbated the problem. 

He hopes the provincial government reconsiders its funding model for public school buses.

A simpler solution would be to increase funding, Eddleston said, though he acknowledged Alberta's current economy likely wouldn't allow for that. 

"Money would solve this problem overnight," he said. 

"If there's enough money, maybe we can add another route that shortens all the routes."

'There's got to be a better way'

In an email to Parke, Alberta's Education Minister David Eggen wrote he is aware of the challenge she faces.

"Despite our current fiscal situation, our government will continue to ensure school boards receive sustainable funding to provide a high-quality education for all students," Eggen wrote.

Parke said she hopes to see more money for rural school buses in the next provincial budget, before her daughter starts kindergarten.

"I do want another bus and I want to send my kids to school," she said.

"There's got to be a better way."

@ZoeHTodd