Alberta school bus driver shortages cost students class time

EDMONTON – Thousands of Alberta students missed more than 2.6 million minutes of school over a four-month period, due to cancelled school bus runs, combined runs and late buses, according to new data from the Student Transportation Association of Alberta.

The association compiled information from 57 school districts to study how a provincewide shortage of drivers affects school bus service, said association president Brenda Johnson, who is also transportation director for the Battle River School Division southeast of Edmonton.

The figures in the study show the magnitude of the problem, Johnson said.

“For the parents who are affected by this, it’s so frustrating,� said Johnson. “But this is a big problem in the province. It’s not just Mrs. Jones on a certain bus route that’s being affected. The stats show it. Thousands of kids are affected by this every day.�

The Student Transportation Association of Alberta presented the findings late last month in Edmonton to industry representatives that included school district transportation directors, bus company officials, and staff from Alberta Transportation and Alberta Education.

The study found hundreds of school-bus routes were cancelled during the four-month period, thousands of students were late getting to school and getting home, routes were combined regularly to fill in gaps, and other transportation staff, such as mechanics, safety officers or transportation directors, regularly filled in for absent drivers.

It is difficult to recruit qualified, skilled drivers willing to work the part-time hours required for school pickups and drop-offs, said Scott Hucal, president of the Alberta School Bus Contractors Association. Parents looking for a second income and retired people often find the job appealing, said Hucal, an administrator with Prairie Bus Lines in Red Deer.

“It’s not for everybody, because you’re dealing with children, you’re dealing with driving the bus, you’re dealing with the public, you’re dealing with parents,� Hucal said. “It’s a lifestyle fit.�

In the Red Deer area, Prairie Bus Lines has about 100 routes and needs more drivers, said Hucal, who often fills in as a driver himself, up to two weeks of every month.

“Basically we have mechanics that drive, we have our dispatchers that drive, we have our office staff that drive … We are making it work, but it’s difficult.â€�

The busing study highlights the need for adequate student transportation funding so school districts can attract and retain school bus drivers, said Christopher Wright, an acting manager for Edmonton Public Schools in charge of student transportation. “You’re constantly in competition with other industries.�

Alberta Education boosted student transportation funding by $10 million in its most recent budget, to $282 million, said department spokeswoman Tamara Magnan in an email.

The department also offers funding incentives to school districts that collaborate on transportation. Forty-one of Alberta’s 63 school boards co-operate with neighbouring jurisdictions to deliver children to and from schools, Magnan said. “These agreements usually involve public boards working with the Catholic board operating in the same geographical area.�

In 2010, the government sponsored the Get On Board program to promote the school-bus-driver profession and offer new recruitment tools to help school boards attract new drivers, said Magnan.

asands@edmontonjournal.com

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