Students in Hay River will not have a ride to school when they return to class on Friday.
The Hay River District Education Authority has had to cancel the three school bus routes it runs, due to a lack of funding.
A letter was sent out to parents in May, warning them that unless more funding was provided bus services would be suspended for the upcoming school year.
Hay River MLA Rocky Simpson called out the funding gap in the Legislative Assembly in May.
Simpson says the $70,000 budget shortfall the district authority has every year has caused the three schools in the town to cut bus routes and implement ridership fees, which has led to a drop in school attendance and some students dropping out.
“This government expects students to attend school, for those that come from affluent families, it may not be a challenge,” said Simpson. “But for many in Hay River, it will require a 40 kilometre return walk home.”
Mark Harris, chairperson of the Hay River District Education Authority, says around 170 students will be impacted.
“We’re a pawn in the middle of this, it needs to be straightened out between the SSDEC and the ECE,” said Harris. “We’re tired of receiving less and being asked to do more.”
The authority had called on the South Slave Divisional Education Council to provide more funding.
But a spokesperson for the education council said their budget surplus had been drained, and that boosting funding wouldn’t be sustainable.
A spokesperson for Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) said the Minister was looking at solutions, including conducting an investigation into whether in deciding to cancel bussing the Hay River District Education Authority met its obligations under the Education Act.
“ECE is aware that the Hay River District Education Authority (HRDEA) believes the funding they receive is inadequate to continue providing bus services,” the spokesperson said.
“However, recognizing that the authority to provide student transportation is held by Education Bodies (the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC) and HRDEA in this case), that approximately 75% of the funding provided to education bodies by ECE is flexible, and that the SSDEC and HRDEA are operating with a surplus, the GNWT is confident that the DEC and DEA currently have the resources to solve this issue without additional funding.”
“Roughly 25 per cent of the Hay River Education District’s student population, or more than 120 students, are reliant on bussing to access JK-12 education,” they added. “The HRDEA’s decision to cancel bussing services does not appear to have meaningfully taken that need into consideration, nor made provisions for students who lack alternative transportation. Ensuring student access to education is a requirement by law and the priority of ECE.”
They added in an email that bussing is a responsibility of the education authority and the SSDEC, and the minister is not in a position to intervene.
Harris said he is hopeful a solution will be presented and said discussions with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment are ongoing.
“We knew that when we made the decision, it was going to be difficult and there was going to be a strain on families and certain families trying to get their kids to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we couldn’t continue down the same road and continue to be asked to provide the same service for less and continue down that same path.”
In the meantime, he said parents had been banding together to arrange rideshares.
“I truly do believe that sometimes you do have to take a hard stance in order to impact change within a system that currently is not working,” he added. “So, again hopeful that our difficult decision is one that turns out to be a positive one for the community.”
Harris said he was hopeful ECE may return to discussions with a solution in mid-September.