Public schools in many Canadian regional school boards simply do not operate anymore without a ready fleet of yellow buses. A growing share of the school tax dollar in Maritime Canada is consumed by daily student transportation, even as student enrollment declines and opportunities are being missed to achieve better cost and energy efficiencies. That was the key finding of our January 2015 AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, and it raised what has been, for many years, a largely “hidden” public policy issue in the education sector.
Transporting students to school is consuming more and more of the costs of public education not only in the Maritimes, but in Ontario and most provincial school systems (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012). In Nova Scotia, over the past five years, student transportation costs (actual operating/per F/S) have risen from $64.2 million to $71.2 million, an increase of 10.9 per cent (Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014) at a time when overall P-12 enrollment continues to decline. The same pattern is also exhibited in neighbouring New Brunswick.
While it 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 transportation policy is essentially driven by provincial grants and the official 3.6km/2.4 km/1.6 km ‘Walk Limit Standard’ entrenched in the long-standing regulations. School board initiatives aimed at containing costs by fiddling with local busing regulations and enforcing walking distances have little effect when “Education on Wheels” is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of provincial education spending (Table 1: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).
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 (Bennett, 2013, 29-32).
Behind the scenes, school boards claim that costs are “at the breaking point” and lobby fiercely for increased grant support to maintain or augment their bus fleets. It is, as a 2008 Alberta School Boards Association report quipped, “the stone in everybody’s shoe” (ASBA, 2008, 3). Yet, in the case of Nova Scotia, closing schools and putting more students on buses has only compounded the problem. Five years ago three in five P-12 students (62.8%) were bused to school each day; by 2013-14, two-thirds (68.1%) of the province’s students rode the buses and travelling longer average daily distances (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DEECD, 2014).
Student transportation trends in the Maritimes tend to be at odds with the recent pattern across North America. Looking at the entire U.S. Kindergarten to Grade 12 student population, slightly over half (55.3 per cent) of the 25.3 million students in 2004 were transported on school buses at public expense. A 2009 American study of how that nation’s elementary school students get to school demonstrated that, while the proportion of U.S. K-12 students bused over the past forty years has remained about 39 per cent overall, the percentage being driven by parents had jumped from 12 per cent to 45 per cent. Most significantly, the proportion of American students walking or bicycling to school dropped from 48 per cent to only 13 per cent.
Such a pattern is not as evident in Maritime cities like Halifax, Saint John, Moncton, and Fredericton. In the Halifax Regional School Board (2013-14), for example, 24,509 of the 48,596 students (or 50.4 %) were bused, about 7.6 % more than five years earlier. For small town and rural Maritime children, student transportation by those distinctive yellow buses still predominates with most school districts busing between 80 and 95.9 per cent of their students to and from school each day from September to June (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).
Over the past thirty years, since the mid-1980s, provincial authorities and school boards outside of the Maritime region have become much more attuned to student transportation costs and the potential for cost efficiencies. Sharing of bus services between school boards and with other educational institutions surfaced in the mid-1980s, mainly in Ontario and rural Alberta.
The Ontario Student Transportation Reform initiatives provide many lessons for other provinces. A 2002 Ontario Education Equality Task Force recommended that the province create 8 to 10 joint transportation “service boards.” In 2006-07, the Ontario Ministry of Education took action, requiring school boards across the province to develop partnerships and combine school board transportation departments into separate fully integrated transportation organizations. The Student Transportation Reform initiative compelled all of the province’s 72 boards to embrace the co-operative student transportation model and to combine in common, coterminous geographical areas (Ontario, STR, 2014).
In the initial phases of coterminous sharing, millions of tax dollars were saved, but the entry of dominant bus industry players like Laidlaw/Student First and Stock and preferred supplier arrangements tended to reduce price competition over time. While the initial cost efficiencies were dramatic, they did not apparently last.
An Ontario Student Transportation Task Force report, in June 2011, identified the problem of competitive procurement and revealed that school bus costs, serving 800,000 students, had reached $845 million, representing 4 per cent of the education budget. Based upon such findings, Ontario economist Don Drummond included reducing student transportation costs by 25 % in his February 2012 report recommending province-wide austerity measures (Drummond, 2012, R 6-17). That recommendation was likely based upon the documented findings of Ministry of Education Effectiveness & Efficiency Reviews, conducted since 2008, and pointing out further potential cost savings.
The most recent research study, produced for the June 2012 Canadian Transportation Research Forum, provided a valuable critical economic market analysis of Canadian school bus transportation. Researchers Joseph Monteiro and Benjamin Atkinson offered an overview of student transportation, province-by-province, and then examined, in some detail, the school bus industry. The researchers identified the need to further examine the impact of subsidization of pupil transportation, the privatization of school bus services, and the costs relative to the primary mission of public education systems. Serious attention was drawn to the potential for collusion between bus operators and “bid rigging” in the awarding of contracts (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012).
Better managing the bus fleet and achieving cost reductions are only one side of the public policy issue. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, has urged policy-makers to look at the impact of school consolidation and busing on the health of children and youth (Strang, CT-NS AGM, 2014). Community advocacy groups such as Community Transit-Nova Scotia and the Ecology Action Centre share this concern and support public policy initiatives promoting active, healthy transportation alternatives. A comprehensive audit of student transportation might open the door to community planning more focused on establishing walkable schools in healthier local communities.
A few critical questions need to be asked: What are the Real Costs – financial and social– of busing so many kids to school? Why is Student Transportation rarely factored into public discussion about containing education costs and creating liveable, walkable communities? Simply posing those questions will spark a needed policy debate over school consolidation, the rising costs of student busing, and the disappearance of walkable community schools.