David Russell

Do we really need school buses in urban areas?
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Coquitlam Now, September 3, 2003, pg. 10

It may be that hitting 35 is naturally making me more fiscally conservative, but each school year that begins I find myself pondering just where all our public money goes. And it seems each year I have a particular bee in my bonnet (See how old I'm getting? Who says that?) about one specific issue.

This year it's buses.

No, not the public transit kind: those ones fulfill the duty for which they were intended, at least for some people. The ones raising my ire are those of the bright yellow variety -- school buses.

School buses are a time-honoured tradition. For as long as there have been the multi-passenger behemoths, there has been delivery of students from outlying areas to the doorsteps of public learning. Education ministries have long believed rural kids ought to be able to attend school as easily as their city counterparts.

My beef is specific to those districts that use school buses in urban areas to ferry kids to and fro at public expense.

The Ministry of Education sets distance guidelines that determine how far a student must live from a local school before the district provides transportation. For example, high school students living further than 4.8 kilometres from the nearest school would get the free ride.

But in urban areas, there really is no call for anyone to be publicly carted when so much public transit is available. True, public transit does not always reach the outermost reaches of the suburbs, but it almost always goes at least part of the way, especially if warranted by demand.

And what of parental responsibility?

We want to see a fully, publicly- funded education system available to all. It is a pillar in a free and democratic society. Parents, however, do shoulder some responsibility for their children's learning. Surely getting them to the institution is not too much to ask.

Parents could argue schools are not sufficiently spread throughout a large suburban district like Coquitlam to reasonably expect their children to walk to school. True. But proximity to local schools should factor into consideration when selecting a place to live. If a family found a neighborhood with no schools nearby, why would they move there?

Each day a school bus picks up and delivers students from atop Westwood Plateau. Surely those families are not so needy as to be unable to be responsible for getting their kids to school. If they are, who told them to go live up a mountain anyway?

In 2002/03, the Coquitlam school district budgeted over $1.3 million for "transportation and housing." No doubt some of that money was dedicated to transportation for extra-curricular activities, but one wonders how much went to bus kids outside catchment limits? Surely not all those costs could be eliminated, but the figure represents more than 30 teachers or goodness knows how many other items or programs.

By comparison, the North Vancouver school district budgeted some $303,000 for the same period and apparently spent only $11,202. The district is not as large, but has similar mountaintop proximity-to- school issues.

In rural communities where population does not warrant building schools, school buses may have an important place in the system. In urban, working and upper class communities already supplied with public transit, surely they do not.

David Russell is a Coquitlam freelance writer and contributing editor on Canadian politics to the online publication Suite101.com.