A switch to free service for many Sooke School District school bus users is being credited, at least in part, for a modest increase in the number of students registered for the service this year.
District secretary treasurer Harold Cull said where a big jump in ridership last year was due to grade realignment that saw district schools move to a K to 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 12 format, the increase of 325 registered riders for this school year is a different story.
“This time … I think it’s because of the government announcement,” he said, referring to the province’s release of new funding for school bus programs, one that came with a condition that fees be waived for most users.
Parents that may have been on the fence about paying for their children to take the bus, or were leaning towards using public transit, didn’t have to worry about the costs, Cull said. He added that most districts in the province expected to see at least a slight jump in ridership numbers as a result.
The Sooke School District has 3,025 riders registered for this school year, up from roughly 2,700 last year.
Earlier in 2016, Cull noted, the SD62 board of trustees decided to maintain the existing number of bus routes. Staff have, however, been busy tweaking existing routes to better accommodate riders, including altering stops with the goal of not disrupting the timing of the route.
To determine how many students wanted to take a school bus this year, and allow sufficient time to plan for ridership numbers, the district opened bus registration in May, closing it off at the end of June. “We wanted to get as much certainty as early as possible,” Cull said.
Parents were given several options to pay for bus fees, including a new online payment system that could handle lump or monthly payments. Registration was reopened in late summer, with new signups added to a wait list, to be accommodated if possible.
In the middle of that process the province announced the new funding. During the second phase of registration roughly 500 students signed on for the service, but Cull said it was undetermined how many were signed up because the fees were waived.
“It was a curveball … Obviously, we had to be nimble on our feet,” he said.
The government’s move also meant the District had to refund fees already collected. That process was complicated by a system mostly built to accommodate payments coming in, not a mass refund. “I think we were able to work out those kinks,” he said, adding the finance department did an incredible job processing the refunds.
“We’re just finishing off the last ones,” said Cull, voicing expectation that the process would be complete by Friday (Oct. 28). “We’re trying to get people’s money back in their pockets as fast as possible.”
He wasn’t aware of any students who needed bus service being turned away this term. “I believe we’ve been able to accommodate everyone,” he said.
Temporary passed have been issued for students in middle and high schools, while bus drivers dropping off or picking up elementary students have a list of riders.
Permanent passes will be issued once the district has received student photos from all of the schools.