Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder
The school district is considering implementing an application fee for a school bus pass to lessen the administrative load for the bus system.
Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools says while some of its routes saw growth that resulted in bus capacity issues at the start of the school year, some routes have fallen below 50 per cent ridership on all runs.
School district staff are proposing a $25 bus application to help pay for the administration of the Z-Pass program as well as to discourage applications from riders who end up not taking the bus, which the district’s ridership data indicates is common.
For the 2022-23 school year, there are 2,108 registered riders; however, the school district says only an average of 858 of those students ride the bus per day.
“This causes staff to speculate the bus service required in each of the areas and then make quick adjustments at the start of school when the reality of the needs become known,” a staff report presented at the Feb. 8 business committee meeting says. The process of creating Z-Pass cards, which registered riders must swipe when boarding the bus, is “a significant administrative burden, particularly given the number of students who do not ride the bus.”
NLPS says the fee would be in line with other districts around the province. The fee would be waived for families who could not afford it. Trustee Tom Rokeby asked whether a deposit would work instead of a fee, but staff said a rebated fee would also present an administrative burden.
While the school district’s administrative procedure and policy for transportation would allow staff to implement the fee without approval from the board, Secretary-Treasurer Mark Walsh said the school district intends to undergo a consultation process with riders and school communities at large and bring feedback to the board before making a decision.
“What we would hope is the fee waiver would be sufficient to make sure equity is there and people would find the relatively modest charge to be appropriate in the circumstances,” Walsh said.
The discussion comes as the school district continues to struggle with hiring bus drivers and heavy duty mechanics. Trustee Mark Robinson said, “I have a really hard time charging people access to public education.”
Some trustees said they would be interested in exploring ways to encourage more students to take the bus to minimize traffic congestion at school drop-off and pickup times and to be in line with the district’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Walsh cautioned the district wouldn’t be able to handle an increase in the number of students riding school buses. With the driver and mechanic recruitment challenge, “we simply to do not have the resources to expand.”
Other trustees felt the fee could be appropriate. “If this is one way of ensuring that we’re being as fiscally responsible as possible, with minimum impact really – when you think about $25, you pay more for a one-month bus pass on BC Transit,” Trustee and board chair Greg Keller said.
A monthly public transit pass for students ages 13-18 is $40. Children under 12 ride for free. The timeline for a fee consultation period was not indicated, though the staff report says fee implementation was under consideration to begin in the 2023-24 school year.
April 3, 2023 update: the following message was sent out to NLPS parents, with an invite to participate on the District Thoughtexchange site.
“The school district is considering the implementation of an annual registration fee for all bus riders. The current challenge is predicting the number of buses required since registration numbers do not reflect the number of seats actually needed. Of the 2,108 registered riders (47 accessible bus riders not included) an average ridership is about 808 each day in the morning and about 907 in the afternoon, which is an average of 858 riders per day. These scenarios create operational inefficiencies that could be addressed by creating a fee that may deter users who register with no intention of using the bus service.