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Archive for the ‘Student Transportation’ Category

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.

AIMSEDonWheelsFew 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.

schoolbusstopsignIf 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? 

 

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Walking or biking to school is making a little comeback in one traffic clogged neighbourhood in North Vancouver.  On a sleepy Friday morning in late April a steady parade of kids and parents, accompanied by the mayor and local councillor, on foot and on bike, streamed down the boulevard sidewalks on their way to Canyon Heights Elementary School.  The festive  “Freedom Friday”  public event has become a hit with families and has helped to spike the numbers of kids walking or biking to school.

WalkableSchoolsFeedomFridayParent groups like the North Vancouver North Shore Safe Routes Advocates have been front and centre in a “movement afoot” in North American cities and towns to reclaim school communities from the “me-first car culture.”  Community wellness and active transportation advocacy groups are springing-up, mostly in cities, in places as diverse as Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The proportion of people who use active transportation – getting around without the use of a car –  has been on a steady decline for decades and it’s particularly evident in and around local schools.  ParticipAction’s 2015 report card on children’s physical activity gave Canada’s kids a D-minus for the third consecutive year. Fifty-eight per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were kids. Only 28 per cent of their kids walk today.

The streets around our local schools become totally gridlocked when, in the words of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail editorial,  “legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up.  The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don’t have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.”

WalkableSchoolsGTADataA 2011 report by Metrolinx surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars. In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents now drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school.  Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.

Local health authorities and active transportation groups are attempting to turn back the tide. Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, under fire for recent school closures, endorsed a 2015 Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) Charter and now works in partnership with the city and its sister Catholic board.

School boards and education ministries have been instrumental in contributing to the decline in walkable schools.  School closures lead to regional consolidation, moving kids further and further away from their designated school. Establishing  speciality academies, French Immersion, and international baccalaureate schools have also contributed to the withering and disappearance of neighbourhood schools.

An even more important factor in the decline of kids on foot has been the nagging but totally unfounded perception that it’s not safe for kids to walk. “Something happened along the way where ‘stranger danger’ took over,” says Carol Sartor, a Vancouver safe route advocate and school travel planner.  The reality is quite different: The RCMP estimate the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are about one in 14 million.

WalkingSchoolBusActive transportation programs are not immune from budget cuts in times of austerity.  A year ago, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre slammed the Nova Scotia government for cutting funding for their walk to school programs across the province.  The budget cut, EAC’s Janet Barlow said, not only cut “longstanding and highly successful walk and bike to school initiatives,” but “hurt kids across the province.”

The EAC initiative had been provincially funded for 12 years and its funding had grown from $50,000 to $105,000 per year in the previous three years. Under a Nova Scotia Health and Wellness strategy, known as THRIVE,  the EAC programs had spread to 24 urban and rural schools reaching and over 2,000 students. In addition to helping kids become more active, the programs were also designed to encourage pedestrian and biking safety.

Student transportation often emerges as a bone of contention in the school review for closure process.  When the Hamilton-Wentworth school board was considering the closure of 11 more of its schools in May 2014, City Council weighed in, endorsing the safe school routes charter in an attempt to stave-off or delay the proposed closures.  Safe transportation, walking and bus distances became a critical factor, activating a joint city-board committee that had been moribund for years.

School closures definitely compound the problem of declining walkability for school children and teens. In the case of the 2014 Hamilton school closure controversy, Dr. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of closures.

“School closures cause a loss of community identity,” Dr. Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.” He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.” The Hamiliton ASST Charter embraced that position affirming the city and school board’s longer-term and ongoing commitment to “active and sustainable school transportation.”

The walkable school movement faces an uphill battle against school consolidation and a car-driven culture. What’s standing in the way of implementing school-wide active transportation programs?  How can school boards professing support for active student transportation justify closing schools and forcing more families to either bus or drive kids over longer and longer distances?  Will it take “traffic gridlock” around schools to produce a change in school siting and planning policies? 

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The largest school board in Atlantic Canada, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), may be the first in the nation to defend cancelling classes on Monday February 8, 2016 to prepare for a “pending blizzard” that eventually produced a routine snowstorm after school hours. Hours later they announced a second day full system shutdown, provoking howls of protest from vocal critics and citizens claiming boards are too quick to call snow days that inconvenience parents and cost teaching time.

NSStormChips“They have closed all schools due to a ‘pending’ storm. Not one flake of snow has dropped out of the sky,” one woman wrote on Facebook.  But HRSB spokesman Doug Hadley said officials had information that the snow could start by 11 a.m. “It wasn’t the question of getting everyone to school, it was a question of getting everyone home safely,” Hadley wrote in an email. That decision not only impacted 137 schools, 4,000 teachers, and almost 40,000 students, but precipitated a rash of early business closures virtually idling the region’s leading business and government centre.

Closing schools system-wide is a rarity in many areas of the country. My AIMS report, Schools Out, Again, produced in April 2010, raised the first alarm bells. Comparing Maritime school closure records with those in six different jurisdictions, including Winnipeg, Calgary, York Region, Durham Region, and the Quebec Eastern Townships, the pattern was abundantly clear — most school districts outside the region close school only 2-3 times a year  or never, not for an average of 8 to 12 days a year, as in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland/Labrador.

A survey of Nova Scotia’s highway cameras on February 8, 2016 at  3 pm showed no snow cover on 47 or the 51 highway locations monitored by highway cams.  Yet the Halifax, Annapolis, South Shore, and Tri-County regional school boards closed all schools, all day. The Acadian School Board cancelled its mainland schools. Université Sainte-Anne, Acadia, Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent, NSCAD, and Saint Mary’s Universities all shut down.

Astute political observer Parker Donham, curator of The Contrarianfelt compelled to declare that “Nova Scotia schools no longer have zero tolerance of snow. They have zero tolerance of the possibility of future snow.” He also tallied up the financial cost to the province of this one day of weather paranoia:

  • Upwards of 100,000 school children lost a day in school unnecessarily.
  • Thousands of teachers and school board staff got a paid day off. [HRSB staff worked a half day.]
  • Roughly 68,000 households had to scramble to make last minute child care arrangements (based on an estimated 1.5 students per family).
  • Some of those parents lost a day of work.
  • Thousands of employers endured absenteeism and paid work time diverted to managing the school boards’ indifference to community needs, provincial employees were sent home at 1 pm.

Defenders of full system Snow Day school closures maintain that school boards should always “err on the side of safety” and trot out the standard claim that students are safer “off -the-roads.” Many of the apologists also claim that riding school buses is somehow more dangerous than riding in personal vehicles, driving ATVs, and sliding down snow-covered hills. That argument deserves further investigation.

SchoolBusNoMoreSnowDaysSchool buses continue to be one of the safest methods of travel for children and youth. Only 0.3 percent of all collisions resulting in personal injury or death involved school buses. Yet, over a 10 year span (1995-2004), children traveled by bus as many as 6 billion times, an estimated 600 million pupil-trips per year and 3,400,000 pupil-trips each day. Over the 10-year period, only 142 people died in collisions involving school buses; and just five of these fatalities were bus passengers.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation compares the likelihood of accidents using various modes of transportation. Compared to occupants of school vehicles, occupants of cars and trucks are: 42 times more likely to be in a fatal collision; 45 times more likely to be in an injury collision; and 25.7 times more likely to be in a collision of any kind. A United States study in the American Journal of Public Health (2005)looked at crash counts during snowy weather versus dry weather conditions and found that snow covered roads generally produce less severe crashes and fewer fatalities.

Some school boards, most notably the Calgary Board of Education, insist that school children are far safer on school buses and in schools during most snowstorms. It’s also fair to say that most school districts outside Atlantic Canada shut their systems down only as a last resort in the most severe, hazardous conditions. Cancelling classes so families can prepare for snow storms is truly unique to Canada’s Atlantic provinces and undoubtedly contributes to the region’s well-known productivity challenges.

Why are Maritime school boards so quick to cancel classes in advance of snow storms?  Where’s the research evidence to support the claim that kids are safer in personal vehicles or playing unattended  outside than travelling by bus to teacher-supervised schools?  Is it time to assess the safety risks of cancelling schools with such frequency? 

 

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School bus fleets remain an underutilized public resource and thousands of yellow buses sit idle for not only much of the school week, but for long periods of the calendar year. Most school districts consider those buses to be ‘school board property’ and continue to see transporting students and providing community transit as completely separate functions.  That remains the case even though rural and small town communities with aging populations are very under-served when it comes to alternatives to gas-guzzling private automobiles, vans and trucks.

SchoolBusMETJ16While school age populations are static or declining in most districts. communities are now responding to a growing aging population about to exert profound economic and social impacts, particularly in rural areas of Canada. Senior citizens use public transit more than any other age group, and the numbers of Canadians 65 or older will grow by 25 per cent from 2011 to 2031.

Developing improved rural transit services is emerging as a critical part of planning for the future.  Two of the greatest challenges in rural mobility, whether in Northern or Eastern Ontario, or most of the Prairie West and the Maritimes, are residents’ access to healthcare, shopping and seniors’ services, since many elderly citizens are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.

One new Ontario pilot project attracting a lot of attention is the Muskoka Extended Transit (MET) initiative. While major cities look to pour millions into subway and rapid rail systems, this rural district in Central Ontario is turning to school buses to help its citizens get around. Starting on January 12, 2016, three companies will be operating school buses weekly along seven routes connecting small villages to the larger communities of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville in Muskoka. The initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the provincial ministry of transportation.

Muskoka’s year-round residents, numbering about 60,000, are a population much like that of rural Canada as a whole. The district also has a high proportion of seniors, with more people over 75 than under 19 years of age. Average incomes in Muskoka have slid from 91 per cent to 83 per cent of the provincial average over the past 10 years.  Two of the seven Muskoka bus routes, for example, transport seniors to Huntsville on Tuesdays, so seniors’ centres and health providers can schedule services to match demand. Other Ontario districts, such as Deseronto and Huron County, utilizing transit buses or rideshare systems, report high public demand for employment, education, and seniors’ services.

The idea of deploying school buses is one that could potentially be applied more widely in rural Canada: taking advantage of school buses sitting idle between picking up kids in the morning and dropping them back home in the afternoon. It was proposed in our AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, back in January 2015, but there was little take-up on the policy option.

Financial barriers do exist for rural transit models, since it can be difficult to justify providing a self-standing service carrying a relatively small number of passengers over sometimes long distances. The 2003 Durham Region Transportation Plan study, for that reason, recommended using demand-responsive services, including school buses, public para transit, van pools and group-chartered taxis. Of those options, school buses are emerging as the most viable for mid-day and late-afternoon route services.

Not much has happened in Maritime Canada since our Education on Wheels report. Today, one or two of Nova Scotia’s municipalities are experimenting on a small scale with using school buses, as strictly local initiatives, acting without much visible provincial support.

The Town and County of Antigonish launched their own Antigonish Community Transit service on September 15, 2014, and secured support from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities at the November 2014 UNSM Fall conference.  Community Wheels, a public/community transit service operating in and around Chester, Nova Scotia, has used a wheelchair accessible mini-bus to provide students with after-school service to access community and extra-curricular activities. The pioneering Kings Transit Service, connecting Wolfville and Brooklyn, NS, was suspended in September 2015 after the Town of Windsor and the municipality of West Hants pulled out, resulting in a 76 per cent reduction in funding for the route.

Many communities, aside from those in rural Ontario, consider maintaining separate public transit and student transportation systems as duplicative and wasteful. Community transit can also be a safe, affordable, and convenient supplement to traditional school buses, especially for middle and high-school students.

Instead of tethering yellow buses to limited school routes, it’s time to meet the pent-up demand for services in rural and small town Canada. Muskoka’s Extended Transit service (MET) shows that it can be done on a larger, more coordinated, region-wide scale. Sharing bus services between municipalities and school boards is an idea whose time has come. It should be part of any province-wide, integrated urban and rural development plan going forward.

Why are school buses sitting idle for much of the week and calendar year when there is a crying need to provide improved rural transit? Should school districts be looking at serving the aging population as student enrollments level off or decline in rural areas? What are the added advantages of incorporating school bus services into community transit ? What’s standing in the way of sharing services, partnering with local transit firms, and collaborating across silos in the public sector? 

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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.

AIMSEDonWheelsTransporting 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.

SchoolBusUrban 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. 

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