Alberta school bus operators struggling with increased fuel prices

·3 min read
Sparksman Transportation in Fort McMurray, Alta., has a fuel clause in its contract with the local school divisions. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)
Sparksman Transportation in Fort McMurray, Alta., has a fuel clause in its contract with the local school divisions. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)

The organization that represents school bus contractors in Alberta warns companies may have to fold if there isn't some kind of financial relief for high fuel prices.

Mark Critch, president of the Alberta School Bus Contractors' Association, said about half of its members don't have fuel price contingencies in their contracts with school divisions and don't have a way to recoup costs.

So far, a dozen companies have closed their doors and another 35 per cent of the association's members are on the verge, Critch said.

Critch said companies are feeling the pinch from the rising cost of fuel, as well as other issues like rising insurance costs and difficulties finding drivers.

He said he'd like the government to bring in a fuel contingency program that's existed previously.

"It worked well and it was only there in case of huge fuel increases," said Critch.

"We've been asking for months now to bring this program back."

Critch is also president of Sparksman Transportation. He noted that Sparksman in Fort McMurray has a fuel clause in its contract with the local school divisions, but the Athabasca location does not.

In Athabasca, there are 38 routes, which are mostly rural, he said.

"That's been really difficult for us to manage," said Critch, who said it currently costs about $30,000 a month extra for fuel to operate in Athabasca.

"It's not even about profit at this point. It's just trying to keep the doors open," said Critch. He said cutting the fuel tax in Alberta did help, but it wasn't enough to offset the entire price increase.

Critch said he has reached out to the province several times to talk about a fuel contingency program.

In an email, Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the suspension of the provincial fuel tax saved school boards about $2 million this school year.

As well, Stavropoulos said over the next three years, the school transportation budget has been increased by $39 million, including $9 million for the 2022-2023 year.

"We will continue to monitor the situation," wrote Stavropoulos.

She said the province encourages school boards to look for efficiencies in transportation.

"We are currently exploring additional options to address rising student transportation costs, and hope to share more on this in the near future," said Stavropoulos.

Marty Brousseau, owner of the charter bus company Krues Busing that does school bus routes in St. Paul, said the rise in fuel prices means some of his bus runs aren't profitable. He has cancelled four out of his company's 12 runs.

"Something has to change or there will be no busing," said Brousseau.

David Shaw, president of the Student Transport Association of Alberta, said fuel prices are cutting into school and contractor budgets.

Shaw would like to see the fuel relief come into play for the next school year, ideally with a $1.20/litre fuel cap.

Shaw, transportation services supervisor for the Lethbridge-based Palliser Regional Schools, said the school division is spending about $25,000 more a month on fuel.

"We'll struggle through but it definitely took a big chunk out of things," said Shaw.

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