Provincial funding announced earlier this month aimed at increasing seat availability, decreasing ride times and saving money for parents of children taking school buses doesn't check off all the boxes just yet, according to Foothills School Division.
The public school division has long been candid about its struggle with various elements of school transportation, from gas and part prices to the recruitment and retainment of drivers.
Among the updates are changes to the eligibility distance. Beginning in the fall of 2024, Grade 1-6 students living more than one kilometre from their school and Grade 7-12 students living more than two kilometres will be eligible for provincial bus funding.
Assistant superintendent Drew Chipman said this will have a notable impact on the division.
"It’s going to take a lot for us to gear up and be ready for that," he said. "We’re looking at around 1,300 students that are going to be eligible that currently are not eligible. We transport around 3,500 students and to add a third [of that], it’s a pretty significant change for us."
However, Chipman said the data the Province is working with hasn't been updated in some time, so the true increase in eligible students is unknown.
FSD has asked the Province whether it plans to provide capital funding for the purchase of buses, given this change will require significantly more seats, but said it has yet to receive a response.
"We’re excited for the announcement about the additional money to cover some costs but we’re also cautious in how that’s going to work," he added. "It’s a big ask for boards to all of a sudden provide transportation to a third more kids."
Estimates show the division would need anywhere from 15 to 20 more buses to accommodate the now-eligible students, a cost of between $2 million and $3 million.
The government has also said it will increase funding for driver training, which will support 1,250 drivers, including 350 new drivers.
Chipman said this is welcome news and something the division intends to capitalize on, given its ongoing struggle to hire drivers and have enough to manage all routes and cover sick leave.
The continuation of the Fuel Price Contingency Program, which gives divisions money to address high fuel costs, is also good news, Chipman said.
"That’s certainly good news because it's difficult when fuel prices raise significantly in a short period of time for us to have the dollars to be able to cover those costs," he said.
FSD considered implementing a fee for both eligible and ineligible riders this year as a way to deal with funding struggles, but held off when it was announced the Province would be directing more money to school transportation.
Chipman said the division will have to review all the details of the new plan to see if service can be continued without additional fees.