BAIE VERTE, N.L. — Students in the new town site and South Shore Drive areas of Baie Verte have been bused to Copper Ridge Academy since it opened seven years ago, but that is expected to change in September.
However, opposition is mounting in the community since a May 14 letter from Deidre Hutchings, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District’s manager of student transportation, was sent to parents. It informed them the practice of providing busing within the 1.6-kilometre family responsibility zone in some areas of the province was ending. Bus stops and routes will strictly adhere to department policies and the district’s courtesy seating protocol.
Development of school bus routes to minimize distance and time students have to travel to the nearest accessible school.
There should be no bus stops located inside the 1.6-kilometre family responsibility zone for the school.
Only eligible students, those residing 1.6 kilometres or greater from their zoned school, will be considered when developing bus routes.
Students residing inside the family responsibility zone can apply for a courtesy seat. If approved, the student must avail of a bus stop that is located further than 1.6 kilometres from their zoned school.
“I am going to fight this to the end,” Joy Barker, a parent, told The Nor’wester.
The route a student would walk from this residential area to the school — spanning about a kilometre to the 1.6 kilometres maximum — includes passing a river and a bridge before reaching Highway 410. The school itself is located in a heavy commercial area and adjacent to the Baie Verte Peninsula Health Centre.
As students would walk Highway 410 — the only road into and out of town — they would pass several businesses, including service stations and restaurants that serve as stops for truckers in the transportation sector, and ongoing construction zones for new businesses.
The road itself is in poor condition, with ruts and potholes causing hazards to drivers and splash pads for pedestrians, and there are no sidewalks and deteriorated paths in its place. Students would have to cross a road at least twice, including Highway 410, and there are no crosswalks in the area.
Barker is concerned for the safety of the children as they walk this route. She is not worried about the walk of a kilometre or more in terms of distance, but the area of town they have to walk through.
She also says not every parent can provide rides for their children to and from school.
Safety is of the utmost concern. However, when the school district was selecting this location, she says they were told students would never have to walk to this area.
“As parents, we had to take a vote on whether we would like the school in a commercial area, and none of us wanted it,” Barker said. “… (we were told) everybody would be bused, if we let them put it in the commercial area. We all agreed, and now they are hauling it all back.
“It is the matter of what we were promised and the matter of us just being disregarded now.”
Paul Matheson, the now retired manager of student transportation, told The Nor’wester that was indeed the message relayed to parents. However, he said the plan implemented at the time would have no bus stops within the 1.6 kilometres of the school, and students in that zone could walk to the nearest bus stop outside that restriction. Matheson remembered one bus stop along the Highway that was granted an exemption through the Department of Education. This plan was not followed. There are at least five bus stops within the 1.6 kilometres.
Barker also says the school has a policy in which students under Grade 7 are not allowed to leave school without an adult. There is also a policy that anybody who walks to school would go home for lunch. She wonders what will happen come September.
“It is either the school has to change a lot of rules or they have to give us back what they promised in the beginning,” she said.
Under the Department of Education guidelines, the school board can provide busing to students within the 1.6 kilometres through the use of a courtesy seat. It is any vacant seat available after all eligible riders are accommodated, and can be allotted based on an application basis.
With a number of students — at least six — residing beyond the 1.6 kilometres on South Shore Drive, a bus would still have to pass by these areas.
However, parents are concerned this process may not be as simple as there will be 66 available seats on a 72-passenger bus. Busing currently transports students from the Ming’s Bight, Pacquet, Woodstock, and Seal Cove areas, and could be used to transport the students on South Shore Drive. The number of courtesy seats could be very few, at least fewer than required to have no students walking to school.
There are currently about 60 students within the 1.6-kilometre zone. They are taken to school on two buses — one that has a single student from Wild Cove picks up those in the new town site area and another that has students from Seal Cove picks up those in the South Shore Drive area.
Terry Hall, assistant director of education (finance), says the district reviews its busing routes and policies to ensure they are being adhered to and efficiently provided. The 1.6-kilometre policy is a long-standing one which is not followed in some areas of the province, and requires changing to ensure everybody is treated the same.
Hall said he could not speak to past practices or any commitments that were made, but that this policy will be followed in the Baie Verte area in September. Eventually, it will be the norm across the entire province, he said.
“Over the years different school boards may have allowed buses to stop out of courtesy as they were going through, some might have made decisions at the time that they could do it maybe for the interim and never got taken out,” he said. “There could be numerous reasons as to how we got to where we are to, but as a district we are trying to find some consistency and get to the point where we are treating all our students in all our areas consistently.”
Hall is aware and says he understands concerns, which is the reason why such ample notice was provided. Along with the courtesy seating protocol, the assistant director says parents are encouraged to provide transportation within the family responsibility zone — especially if they have safety or other concerns.
“We won’t do anything or implement anything that we don’t deem as safe or adhering to policy,” he said.
There are similar instances across the province of schools located in commercial areas or along highway routes.
Brian Warr, MHA for Baie Verte-Green Bay, has been contacted by parents from Baie verte concerned over this change. He has been made aware of the safety concerns and the history of commitments made to the people when the school location was selected.
This issue has been addressed several times as changes were made in other areas of the province, but Warr says it was never an immediate concern of his until it affected people in his district. He participated in a technical briefing Tuesday (May 15) and says he addressed the concerns of parents in the town with the minister and officials with the Department of Education.
“I realize with Highway 410 there are concerns over the speed limit being 50 kilometres (per hour) and there are no sidewalks, and it concerns me,” he said. “We made our feelings known to the department, they are working on a change in the plan. I am just asking people to be patient with me … I hope (the plan to implement this policy) changes.”
The MHA says if previous commitments were made, the department should have record of that and acknowledge it.
He encourages anyone with concerns to contact his office.