Alberta's education minister says he'll take a close look at St. Albert Public's bus fees to see if they violate Bill 1.
Bill 1 became law this week. The bill bans school boards from charging fees to bus students that live more than 2.4 km from their designated school as of this September.
The St. Albert Public board voted last month to eliminate fees for such students, but also raised them by $100 or $160 for students not covered by Bill 1.
On Thursday, Education Minister David Eggen sent a letter to the Gazette that said he would review and approve every school district's bus fee schedule for this fall.
"While I've heard some Albertans question whether some fees – such as transportation for students not covered by Bill 1 – will increase as a result of this legislation, I will be working with school boards to ensure that school fees will not be rising as a result of Bill 1," he wrote.
"Should a board propose school or transportation fee increases, they must provide me with a rigorous analysis and justification prior to my consideration."
The bottom line is that school boards must not increase their fees as a result of Bill 1, Eggen said in an interview.
"The goal is indisputable: that we must reduce school fees and make life more affordable for Alberta families."
He also said that boards should not be using instructional dollars for busing. St. Albert Public has said it will use at least $100,000 in instructional funds to fund next year's buses.
"They (boards) must not compromise instructional budgeting at all," Eggen said.
Eggen would not say if he would veto St. Albert Public's proposed fee hikes or provide additional cash to eliminate the need for them. The board did excellent work, and he would co-operate with them on this issue.
Public board superintendent Barry Wowk learned about the letter when the Gazette sent it to him Thursday and said he was still waiting for clarification on it from the province.
"Bill 1 wasn't the reason for the increase," he said.
"The only thing it affected was who got the increase."
While board secretary-treasurer Michael Brenneis had told the board that it had a $200,000 shortfall as a result of Bill 1, specifically as a result of the way the province had chosen to compensate them for the fact that it could no longer charge students covered by the bill a fee for busing. He said last month's fee increases were not meant to cover this shortfall. The board would instead make up this money using instructional dollars and debt.
The increase that did happen was needed to account for St. Albert's three new subdivisions and Lois Hole Elementary, Wowk said.
Brenneis had told the board that the district would lose about $225,000 in provincial bus money once Lois Hole opened as it would suddenly put many students too close to a school to qualify for provincial funding.
Whereas the board had originally planned to raise fees for all students to cover this shortfall, it instead just raised it for students not covered by Bill 1.
Wowk said Alberta Education officials had told him such fee hikes were acceptable. Without these hikes, he said the board would either have to go further into debt or drop bus service for these students.
Wowk said that the minister would not normally review a board's transportation fees.