The Department of Education is hurrying to improve its bus routes and schedules before the weekend, upset parents were told at a public meeting this week.
Close to 50 people, mostly residents of the Mayo Road area, showed up at Hidden Valley Elementary School on Wednesday evening to voice their concerns to deputy minister Valerie Royle.
Since the beginning of the school year, the department has been flooded with complaints stemming from changes made to bus routes over the summer.
Many parents complained about children having much longer commutes. The meeting also heard of stranger stuff, such as high school students bribing younger students with chocolates to fight each other. Others described parked buses slowly rolling away, or buses hitting stop signs and deer.
The department called the meeting because it couldn’t continue to address the complaints on an individual basis.
Families living in the Mayo Road area made up most of the attendance. They’ve been fighting to resolve long-standing bus issues since last November.
At the time, a group of 20 parents whose children attended Porter Creek Secondary, Holy Family Elementary and Hidden Valley Elementary schools complained about changes made to existing bus routes.
Teachers who volunteered to supervise buses for 45 minutes in the morning and the evening were working too many hours, and it became a union issue. Dismissal times were changed but the resulting schedules created a ripple effect for other schools, where pick-up and drop-off times were also changed.
Affected parents complained that it took many months for the education minister, Elaine Taylor, to finally reply. They raised concerns in January, and only heard back in May.
The group thanked Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers in a letter for his invitation to this week’s public meeting, but said their concerns remain, and now affect all of Whitehorse.
“As school is now back in session, parents are finding that the changed bus scheduling that originated at Hidden Valley School has actually escalated into a city wide concern by parents about the current school bus system,” the letter stated.
“The universal sentiment by parents is that it is ineffective, inefficient, most disconcerting and unsafe for our children. More than just the busing schedule, we have concerns about safety, communication, and accountability for specific bus-related incidents.”
The department is now trying to revert to old routes in the Mayo Road area because they worked before the supervision issue, Royle said.
This year in Whitehorse, 40 school buses bring students to 15 different schools. But in the Mayo Road area alone, approximately 150 kids are bused to 10 different schools.
At Wednesday’s meeting, over 20 separate issues were raised ranging from problems with the registration process to children riding past their schools on their way to transfer stations.
One parent at the meeting said she tried registering her child five times on the department’s website, and gave up.
Royle acknowledged the problem and told parents the department has been working hard on changing the routes for the past two weeks.
Earlier this year, the department started using new bus routing software called Versatrans, which is designed to improve transportation operations by analyzing data and plotting routes.
Royle said the software isn’t the problem, because it’s only as good as what you put into it.
There are broader issues at hand, such as the faulty registration process which has overwhelmed the department, Royle added.
“I know people are frustrated, there is so much that changes every year,” she said.
“We’re hoping this new system will help us next year. We’ve been learning a lot – we need to do it way earlier next year.”
The department asked parents to review new bus routes and register their children online in June. By the end of that month 1,253 students had been registered.
But 700 late registrations were made since the beginning of the new school year, overwhelming the department.
“We get the ongoing stuff but never hundreds at a time,” Royle said.
“We set the bus routes the Friday before school started on the Monday. We waited until the last minute. We missed the mark doing this in June, people might have already been in vacation mode. We will try much earlier next year.”
To parent and Mayo Road resident Ann-Marie Stockley, who attended the public meeting, that’s not good enough.
She said her children had 27 different bus drivers last year.
“The bus had many near-miss incidents as well as being utter chaos,” she said.
“This year with the changes my kids ride the bus for an hour in the morning. That’s 30 minutes more than last year. I’m no longer optimistic, as I have just heard from another parent that my kids are getting more time added to their pick up time in the morning. I feel lied to again by the Department of Education.”
At the meeting, a pair of solutions that might eliminate some outstanding concerns were presented to parents.
The first is the implementation of GPS devices in the school buses, which will allow parents to track them from their smart phones and computers.
The department is currently evaluating the cost of the project, Royle said.
The second is a phone system, an extra cost associated with the Versatrans software, which the department was planning on purchasing anyway.
It would auto-dial families and let them know of any changes to bus schedules and routes.
Royle said Vanier Catholic Secondary School uses it successfully.
Changes to the bus routes are expected to be completed by this afternoon and ready by Monday morning.
Updates will be available on the Department of Education’s website and in schools around the city.
Contact Myles Dolphin at