Winnipeg parents irate after new school bus policy leaves them stranded

A change to the Winnipeg School Division’s bus transportation policy has created panic among Winnipeg parents who question how their kids will get to and from school in September.

School division will no longer allow parents to pay for their kids to use bus if they live too close to school

Currently, parents of children who live too close to a school to qualify for bus transportation can pay a fee to 'piggyback' on Winnipeg School Division's bus service. But the division is changing that policy, leaving some parents scrambling to figure out how to get their children to school. (iStock)

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A change to the Winnipeg School Division's bus transportation policy has created panic for some parents who question how their kids will get to and from school in September.

In an effort to cut costs, the WSD is ending a policy that allowed children who didn't qualify to take the bus — because they live too close to their school — an option to pay a nominal fee to use the service.

But at least two working Winnipeg parents say without this option, their children might not be able to go to kindergarten because they have no means to get them to school.

"I'm in a panic right now over it," Krystal Thorington told CBC News.

Thorington is a resident physician who works long hours and takes her three children to a daycare in the West End every morning.

Her five-year-old goes to kindergarten at École Laura Secord School, across the street from her home in Wolseley, but because of the lack of daycare spots in the area, Harstone Children's Centre on Sargent Avenue was her only option.

The same goes for law professor Shauna Labman, who sends her children to the the University of Winnipeg Students' Association's daycare centre.

The division's current policy provides students who live more than 1.6 kilometres from their catchment school the guarantee of being transported to school. 

Under the old policy, exceptions were made for students who lived within the 1.6 kilometres from the school if the parents paid the monthly fee, there was a spot open on the bus and it did not require a bus to be rerouted. 

Starting September 2017, only students who meet the distance requirements will be eligible to receive transportation.

Because Thorington and Labman both live within 1.6 kilometres of their catchment school — Laura Secord — the bus will no longer pick their kids up from their daycares come September.

Parents use 'piggyback' option

Currently, both Thorington and Labman rely on a long-standing "piggyback" option, which allows parents to pay $44 a month to have their kids take the bus if it is already going to the daycare location to pick up a student who lives more than 1.6 kilometres away.

Beginning in September that option will be gone, and despite the fact buses will still likely need to go to both daycare spots to pick up qualifying students, Thorington and Labman's children can't hop on.

Both argue the issue is that the WSD only allows parents to use their home address when deciding if they qualify for busing — not the address of the daycare centre their children attend.

That has been a long-standing issue for Labman, who lobbied the school division to change the policy even before the option was cut altogether for parents.

Labman and her two children live near Laura Secord, but she works across town at the University of Manitoba. Every morning she drops her children off at the U of W daycare — a spot she waited for years to get.

Currently there are more than 14,000 people on a wait list for childcare spaces in Manitoba.

"Spots are not easily available, particularly in Wolseley," Labman said, laughing at the idea of being able to find a new spot closer to the school.

'Probably won't be going to kindergarten'

With this policy coming in September, Labman said she won't likely be able to put her daughter into kindergarten.

"I'll have no way to get across town to get her to daycare and school and back to daycare because kindergarten is only 2.5 hours," she said. "So the realization my husband and I are coming to is that she probably won't be going to kindergarten."

The WSD said in a letter to parents that it "recognizes that this requires some families to make adjustments."

But it noted the change in policy aligns it with the services offered by other school divisions in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg School Division finance chair Chris Broughton says the division had to make hard decisions after the province offered a one per cent increase in funding. (CBC)
School trustee Chris Broughton, the WSD's finance committee chair, said the division was under budget pressure after the province agreed to increase its contribution to the division by one per cent.

"Our transportation costs are nearly double those of other school divisions, so we are struggling to bring costs down, while delivering quality education," he said.

"The struggle is when we have these special transportation options that go beyond what the province is willing to pay for, then that is something the WSD is 100 per cent on the hook for."

The cost-saving measure in the WSD's 2017-18 budget will affect nearly 200 students and is expected to save $273,400 annually.

Broughton said the policy change will allow five bus routes to be cut, adding the fees paid annually to use the bus only subsidized the cost of the buses, but never fully covered the expense.

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