Public schools in most of the Maritimes simply do not operate anymore without a ready fleet of yellow buses. More and more of our school tax dollars are going to provide services outside the classroom in the form of “Education on Wheels,” otherwise known as daily student transportation. That’s the key finding in our new AIMS research report calling for the joint board sharing of school bus services and a host of other cost and energy efficiencies.
Annual busing costs have risen in a time of significantly declining student enrolments. In Nova Scotia, over the past five years, student transportation costs have risen from $64.2 million to $71.2 million, an increase of 10.9 per cent at a time when overall P-12 enrolment dropped by 8.3 per cent. Similarly, in New Brunswick, more money is being spent to transport a shrinking student population that plummeted by 14.9 per cent in the ten year period from 2002-3 to 2011-12.
While mounting student transportation costs is fast becoming a major challenge for provincial education authorities and school boards, the critical issues remain shrouded in mystery and largely hidden from the public. School closures and consolidation are routinely implemented as cost reduction measures without any real disclosure of the impact on school board or provincial school busing costs. Small school advocates and community activists who ask questions about the added costs to taxpayers are assured that it is either of no concern or that more students can simply be added to existing bus routes.
Given the escalating costs of student transportation, those rationalizations no longer suffice.
School board initiatives aimed at containing costs by fiddling with local busing regulations and enforcing walking distances have little effect because daily home-to-school student transportation driven largely by school closures and fuel costs, is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of provincial education spending.
Student transportation is a hidden public policy issue that now requires attention by provincial officials throughout the region. There should be a legislative requirement to regularize the full public disclosure of the scale and cost of school transportation operations.
Fortunately, critical policy research in Ontario has identified the most potentially productive points of investigation: the impact of provincial subsidies preferential purchasing arrangements and oligopolistic market tendencies sharing of services, and a whole range of further cost and energy efficiencies. The establishment of joint board consortia in Ontario, mandated province-wide in 2006, now provides us with concrete examples of its short and longer-term cost and management effectiveness benefits.
Better managing the bus fleet and achieving cost reductions are only one side of the public policy issue. Acomprehensive audit of student transportation might open the door to community planning more focused on establishing walkable schools in healthier local communities.
Student transportation needs to be factored into public policy discussion about containing education costs and creating liveable, walkable communities. School consolidation, provincial subsidization of student busing, the disappearance of smaller community schools, and other proven cost efficiencies are all waiting to be addressed in Maritime provincial school systems.
School budgets are under more pressure than ever before and the objective for policymakers should be to focus more of that spending on the classroom. Student transportation is already taking too big a bite. Now is the time to seize efficiency opportunities in the previously neglected domain of student transportation services.
Paul Bennett and Derek Gillis are the coauthors of the AIMS research report “Education on Wheels”
*This opinion piece featured in the Telegraph Journal