The Northern Lights Public Schools (NLPS) Board says it has looked at a number of ways to address rising costs for bus contractors in the Lakeland, which includes insurance, but also fuel, maintenance costs, and training of new drivers. However, despite rising insurance costs the NLPS says bus contractors are also facing a shortage of bus drivers.
This year the NLPS will receive $5.594 million from the provincial government to provide transportation for students. This is the same amount they received for the 2020-2021 school year.
Nicole Garner is the Communications Officer for NLPS.
“Funding was unchanged because the province is in the process of developing a new funding model for transportation following the work done by its Transportation Task Force last year,” Garner told Lakeland Connect.
Garner says, “The Board gave all contractors a three per cent increase this year, despite not receiving an increase in funding from the provincial government.”
Increased financial support for contractors is challenging Garner says.
“We are working with a fixed amount of money that can be used for transportation,” Garner told Lakeland Connect. “There are two ways we can supplement that, charging fees, which we currently do for in-town busing where we are able to provide it, or taking money from the instructional portion of our budget and transferring it to transportation essentially taking dollars out of classrooms to fund busing.”
A 358 per cent increase in insurance rates for small contracted bus operators was implemented in November 2020. The increase in rates is out of the bus contractor’s control, and it occurred mid-year in the contracts. No other insurance providers are willing to insure operators with less than 25 bus routes, leaving small contractors with no option.
In addition to this, large contractors have had insurance increases of over 200 per cent. Under the new insurance agreement, contractors will no longer be permitted to drive for various school divisions as of November 1, 2021, and all buses must be equipped with camera systems and GPS systems that are unfunded.
Approximately ten years ago, Alberta Education removed all fuel funding from the government grant and it was at the expense of all school bus contractors in the Province. Since that time there has been a three per cent increase to rural school bus routes,” the Alberta School Bus Contractors Association stated. “In 2019 the government grant funding was frozen with an additional increase of five per cent added for 2020-2020. For the 2021-2022 school year the funding is the same as in 2020-2021 with no increase for growth.”
The Alberta School Bus Contractors say they are at the mercy of school divisions to recognize the increasing cost of operations and provide that funding.
“Most divisions have not forwarded the five per cent increase to the bus contractors, sitting the need to keep the money for anticipated growth,” the Alberta School Bus Contractors Association stated.
However, NLPS and division administration says it has been working on this issue steadily for the past two years.
“Unfortunately, the skyrocketing cost of insurance, up approximately $5,000 per bus from two years ago, is causing some local contractors out of business,” Garner told Lakeland Connect. “These are contractors that have been with NLPS for a long time and were valued members of our school community. They know our students and our families and are willing to take on routes in rural areas that other contractors and carriers are not interested in operating. But with insurance increases on top of the high cost of fuel and increased training costs for new drivers, it is no longer financially feasible for some contractors to operate anymore.”
“The Board has written letters, raised the issue with local MLA’s and in Transportation Task Force meetings, and worked with other boards in the province, as most are in a similar position,” Garner said. “The Board had hoped for some assistance from the provincial government prior to the deadline for contractors to sign on for insurance this year, but that did not happen.”
Garner says the NLPS Board will continue to raise this issue with Alberta Education and our area MLA’s to try and find a resolution as well as work with their insurance consortium (ARMIC) to explore alternatives.
“A variety of options have already been explored, but none have resulted in a solution that did not include increased insurance costs for contractors,” Garner said.
In addition to the rising insurance issue, NLPS says its bus contractors are also facing a shortage of bus drivers, which means when drivers are ill or otherwise unable to drive their routes, they do not have any spares and have to cancel routes.
“We currently have one route in the Moose Lake area in Bonnyville that has not been in operation for the last month as there are no contractors willing to take on the route,” Garner told Lakeland Connect. “We have been working with our contractors to look for potential drivers but have had little interest.”