It’s going to cost more to ride the school bus next year for most students in the Vernon School District.
Last week the school board approved a new fee structure that will see students pay either $200 or $300 annually.
For the majority of riders, the change will mean a jump from paying $25 this year as a registration fee to a $200 charge next year.
The change is not sitting well with many parents.
“I won’t pay it. It’s ridiculous. That is what our tax money is for,” said Cherryville parent Linda Fawcett.
“Where does the money go that they already get from everybody? You have low-income families that live in Cherryville where do you think they are going to get their money from?”
Fawcett is among the hundreds of people who have signed an online petition against the fee increase and is now considering driving her daughter to school next year.
As of Monday afternoon, the petition had more than 500 signatures.
The school district says that by providing busing it is actually going above what it is provincially mandated to do and the higher fees will still only cover a fraction of the transportation costs.
The average cost per student for transportation is $900 a year, according to the school district.
“It doesn’t take away the fact that (this fee) is a shock for our parents now…but if we want to improve our service then we have to increase our fees,” said school board chair Gen Acton, who personally voted against the new fee structure approved by the board.
Acton said financial assistance will be available for those that can’t afford the fee and the board is also going to look at offering an installment payment plan for bus fees.
The fees are increasing to help the school district pay to expand busing service to students who attend “programs of choice” like Montessori and French immersion.
“We’ve had a lot of public representation coming out to different board meetings expressing their concerns about busing. We felt if we are offering busing then we need to do a better job,” Acton said.
Currently, students who attend “programs of choice” are considered courtesy riders and only given a bus spot if space allows.
Parents had raised concerns that this was making it hard for some families to access the district’s highly sought-after French immersion programs.
If planned changes go through, next year students attending French immersion and other “programs of choice” will get the same priority for busing as students attending their regular catchment schools.
However, “program of choice” riders will pay a higher $300 fee for busing compared to the $200 fee charged to those attending their catchment schools.
The District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) believes some increase in the fees was necessary but is concerned parents didn’t have enough time to voice their thoughts on the proposed fee increase.
“They did let parents know when meetings were being held and things were going to be discussed, but it wasn’t until last Tuesday that the fee structure was released. Then the decision by the board was made the Wednesday, the next day. So there really, in that time frame, isn’t enough time for parents to find the information and then to comment on it,” said DPAC vice-president Sarah Hanson.
The school district’s secretary-treasurer is defending the district’s consultation process.
He said that a proposal for a $300 annual fees increase was made public more than a week before the final decision.
The secretary-treasurer said DPAC was able to provide feedback on both the initial $300 fee proposal and the final fee structure that was passed last week.