• Trevor Greenway

Bus routes a bust?

Parents in west Quebec are scrambling to find alternate ways of getting their kids to school this fall as the ministry of education and the province’s school bus drivers spar over contract negotiations.


The main union representing school bus drivers in Quebec has refused the ministry’s latest offer and says that if an “agreement in principle” isn’t reached by the beginning of the school year, buses won’t be taking kids to and from school.


With just two weeks until classes begin, parents are beginning to worry.


“How are we going to juggle it all with getting kids to school on time and still being able to work?” said Cantley resident Amanda DeGrace, who has two children attending Chelsea Elementary this fall, and another one making the big jump to Hadley Junior High School in Hull. “There’s already enough stress getting the kids up and out the door for school in the mornings. To not have the busing and to have to drive them and [for the kids] to be reliant on us as parents 100 per cent of the time is fairly daunting.”


Aside from the inconvenience, DeGrace is more concerned about yet another wrinkle in her kids’ schooling - especially for her oldest son, who will be entering a new school with new students, new friends and an entirely new school experience at Hadley.


“With my oldest going to a new school into Grade 7, he was looking forward to being on the bus, being able to get off the bus with other students, being shuffled into the school altogether. I think now, for students who are new to school this September, it brings a lot more uncertainty and possibly anxiety to them because they are being dropped off on their own and then have to find their way.”


According to Western Quebec School Board director-general Mike Dubeau, the ministry of education offered drivers an 11.36 per cent increase in pay - the ministry’s third offer since contracts expired in June. Dubeau explained that the school board currently receives $10.4 million in transportation funding from the province, but with the rising cost of diesel and food, drivers say the increase is “not enough.”


“It’s very frustrating,” said Dubeau.“I know the transporters want to get this done; they don’t want to delay the start of school transportation. The ministry certainly doesn’t want to [delay transportation] and, of course, the board, we are sort of stuck in the middle to a certain extent.”


Dubeau explained that the situation with the school board in western Quebec is “complex,” as the board works with six private bus companies that operate 132 buses in the region. Some of those contracts haven’t expired, but the contract with the WQSB’s biggest provider, Sogesco, which operates 85 per cent of the buses, expired in June. Sogesco told Dubeau that, without an agreement in place, buses to schools including Wakefield Elementary, Chelsea Elementary, Hadley Junior High, Philemon Wright High School, and St. Michael’s High School wouldn’t run.


French schools in the Centre de services scolaires des Portages-de-l'Outaouais service centre (formerly school board), including Grand Boisé in Chelsea, and Des Lacs High School and École au Coeur-des-Collines in Masham are also affected by the looming strike.


“Just be prepared in the event that the buses aren’t running to have an alternate way to school,” added Dubeau. “Schools are going to remain open; teachers are going to report to work; schools are ready to receive students. But be prepared. I’m cautiously optimistic that this is going to be solved, but I just want to make sure that parents have a heads up that we may start the year without bussing at some of our schools.”


Wakefield parent Carly Woods has already started chatting with other parents to work on a carpooling solution, but with two kids at different high schools – Philemon Wright and St. Mike’s – ironing out the details of pickup and drop off with multiple kids and multiple parents and varying times is going to be tricky.


“I’m very concerned,” said Woods. “It’s going to be a major inconvenience on so many of us parents.”


The clock is ticking. School starts Aug. 30 at most area schools.