The cost to get to school

Availability of resources determines how much school boards spend on transportation

Transportation can be a barrier to education for some kids. Credit: Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock

Education might be free to all students in the Canadian public school system, but there can also be barriers to learning—like how to get kids to school safely and efficiently.

Districts are responsible for managing their own school buses. That includes hiring drivers, buying buses, dealing with logistics, and determining what cost, if any, each student will bear.

And different rules means families across districts can face different bills—or decisions about how to get their kids to school.

Each year BC’s education ministry uses a funding formula to distribute more than $6 billion among 60 school boards across the province. Schools boards then determine how to spend that money in their district—including how much should be allocated to transportation.

The size and landscape of each community varies considerably, meaning the needs of each district aren’t all equal. Larger school districts like Abbotsford and Langley manage more students and bigger budgets than districts the size of Fraser Cascade. But the valley’s easternmost district is unique in that it encompasses more than a single community.

Based on available resources and board set policies, trustees then determine what they want to spend on busing. That includes drivers, the numbers of buses in its fleet, and the routes those buses run.

Fraser Cascade has budgeted the greatest share for student transportation this school year. It has allocated roughly $480,000 to busing, approximately 2.5% of its annual operating budget. Chilliwack budgeted $3.7 million, about 2% of its operating budget—similar to Abbotsford. Mission budgeted $675,000, roughly $1.1%. And Langley, one of the valley’s largest districts, has budgeted the least: $2.2 million—less than 1% of its annual operating budget.

The money directly translates to how many students take the bus. In Chilliwack, 27% of the school population rides the bus. Chilliwack operates 49 bus routes and had nearly 4,000 kids enrol last year. In Abbotsford, roughly 17% of students ride the bus. The district has 48 buses (10 of which are spares) that served approximately 3,320 students the previous school year. Langley has the smallest share of the student population riding the bus: 4%. The district runs 26 bus routes and provided transportation to about 1,000 students last year. Fraser Cascade, meanwhile, has 10 buses (and two spares) that run 10 routes.

But not all students in need of transportation might be eligible to ride the bus. Districts all have their own requirements as to how they determine students qualify for a seat. Those rules include a walk limit: a distance from one’s catchment school beyond which bus transportation is offered for free or low cost. The limits deter riders living closer to school who may be able get to school another way—and help to recoup some costs.

The walk limits can be considerable—especially for young kids. Fraser Cascade is the only district in the valley that has a designated category for Kindergarten students. Kindergarten students who live more than 1.6km from school are eligible to ride the school bus. But if you’re a five-year-old—or elementary student—who attends school in Mission, Abbotsford, or Langley, you’ll need to live 3.2km from school to qualify for a school bus. If you live 3km from school, you may be expected to be able to walk.

If you’re a parent of a five-year-old who doesn’t want their kid to walk roughly 17 city blocks at daybreak, you can still register them to ride the bus—in some districts.

Parents in Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Langley with kids within the walk limits are eligible for transportation if there is still space remaining after kids outside the walk limits are accommodated. But for those families the ride comes with an added cost.

Parents with kids within walk limits in Langley and Mission pay $400 per rider and a maximum of $600 per family. In Abbotsford, the annual cost per student is $450 or $670 per family. Courtesy riders in Chilliwack pay $285 annually with a maximum of $570 per family. (Non-courtesy riders must also pay a $25 fee.) Fraser Cascade doesn’t collect any fees. Courtesy riders are accommodated based on availability.

Bus registration opened at the end of the 2023 school year in many districts. Some are still taking applications while others have a waitlist. You can view bus registration details for each district here: Langley | Abbotsford | Mission | Chilliwack | Fraser Cascade.

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