When my policy research report, Education on Wheels, was released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in January 2015, the official reaction was totally unexpected in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick.
New Brunswick is currently facing a significant financial challenge with public discussion animated by books like Richard Saillant’s 2014 title, Over the Cliff?: Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy. It’s also a fully bilingual province with a dual school system where students are educated in either Anglophone or Francophone schools. Every proposed change, we learned, is assessed in relation to its impact upon the duality of educational provision.
Few among the political class noticed that our report was subtitled “Seizing Cost and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Student Transportation.” Instead of seizing the initiative in controlling student transportation costs now consuming up to 7 per cent of the education budget, policy-makers became side-tracked in a time consuming, fruitless debate over maintaining dual busing services.
As the lead author of the first comprehensive review of Atlantic Canadian K-12 student transportation, it was disappointing, to say the least, to see two N.B. cabinet ministers pluck one recommendation, rip it out-of-context, and turn the whole public discussion into a test of the province’s commitment to duality in student busing.
Spending almost two years pursuing a court reference to curtail one rural area (Kent County) involving eight buses out of 1,200 in the province and affecting only 92 students speaks volumes about misplaced provincial priorities. The only real benefit was to raise the profile of law professors seeking to turn this into a test of French linguistic rights.
Now that the New Brunswick Government has wisely abandoned its almost two-year quest to seek a court ruling on the question of dual busing, it’s time to actually get on with tackling the bigger issues, most of which can be done without venturing into that political minefield again.
Under the newly announced provincial policy, N.B. District Education Councils are now free to secure a better deal on bus services for local ratepayers and to reinvest the savings where it counts – in the classroom. To suggest that the recent decision means the “status quo” remains in place is simply indefensible when the AIMS report demonstrated that shared administrative services, contracting out, and energy efficiencies could save New Brunswick taxpayers millions in the years ahead.
Leaving aside dual busing, my report (co-authored with Derek M. Gillis) revealed that the number of school buses in N.B. increased to 1,237 in 2014 from 1,156 in 2009, despite the fact that the total student population declined to 74,055 from 85,000 during that time. Unlike other provinces, over 90 per cent of the province’s school buses are owned and operated by the government with little or no integration or shared agreements with municipal transit services. The entire system is ‘grant-driven’ without any real competition to help achieve better cost efficiencies.
New Brunswick student transportation costs, we found, were largely driven by capital replacement cost recovery and government employee contracts with little or no private contracting. Consolidating schools only compounds the problem by extending daily routes and piling-on additional, incremental busing costs.
If student transportation research in Ontario and Alberta are any guide, the absence of competitive bidding for bus contracts, over time, results in higher per student costs that take a bigger and bigger bite out of education budgets. Since the late 1980s, leading Canadian school boards, beginning in Ottawa and York Region, have, on their own, created regional transportation authorities. Since 2006, all of Ontario’s 72 boards have integrated, shared bus services, managed by twenty-two “consortia” with a mandate to contain costs and achieve energy efficiencies.
Mounting provincial deficits and tightening education budgets suggest that New Brunswick and its school districts should look first to educational support services in pursuit of cost savings. There is much that can be achieved in student transportation reform without compromising student safety.
Combining government-run and contracted services and providing incentives to form joint transportation service authorities is a proven success, as demonstrated in both Alberta and Ontario. Once that is achieved, the harder work begins in implementing improved transportation cost management systems and a whole range of new business practices based upon the latest advances in data collection/analysis, route scheduling software, energy efficiency, and improved point-of-service daily operations.
We are now calling upon the N.B. government and school districts to act upon the following practical, no-nonsense recommendations: embrace a province-wide joint services strategy, permitting School Districts to jointly manage their own student transportation services; review potential cost efficiencies in rural busing and special education services; utilize the latest technology to improve route management and reduce duplication of services; adopt a ‘walkable schools’ plan encouraging active transportation; initiate two pilot student services consortia (urban and rural) to model best practice; and implement reliable performance metrics. Once these initiatives are underway, authorize regular provincial audits to benchmark and track student transportation service levels.
Where does bilingualism begin for students in public education — at the doorstep or the school entrance? What’s the real impact of bilingual duality on the capacity of school districts to achieve cost and energy efficiencies? If separate transportation is official provincial policy, then is co-mingling on the sidewalks and bike trails subject to that same policy? Is New Brunswick alone in facing such public policy challenges?