Killaloe – Parents in the Madawaska Family of Schools, which includes schools in Killaloe, Barry’s Bay, Combermere and Palmer Rapids, are fighting the introduction of staggered bells stating the proposed savings of $100,000 are not worth the mental health stress on families and children and the impracticality of buses repeatedly traversing the same rural roads for various school opening times.
Staggered bells are not a happy topic in Renfrew County. While most school “families” or areas had staggered bells forced on them over a decade ago, in the Madawaska Family of Schools – which includes the schools which are feeders into Madawaska Valley District High School -- the staggered bell system was not brought in because of arguments the schools are too widely spread apart and the pupils too widely spread apart for it to feasibly bring in worthwhile economic savings.
Fast forward to 2021, the year in which most schools have been shuttered for a large part of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and parents were notified in March staggered bells were coming into their district this fall. It means high school will begin early, somewhere around 8:15 and elementary schools will begin later at around 9:30. For families who rely on busing to transport their children to school it means a major shift in household schedules including some wondering about the safety of leaving elementary school children at home alone when their older siblings have already gotten on the bus to go to the high school an hour or so earlier.
“This is not what we want as parents for our kids,” Derek Frew, a parent of three, said. “This is a very unique place with rough terrain and very rural in nature.”
When he heard about the staggered bells he began talking with other parents and soon a group of 100 parents formed, objecting to the plan and asking the school boards to reverse the decision. It quickly became apparent it was the all-powerful Renfrew County Joint Transportation Consortium which would make the decision and despite the tacit support of trustees from both boards to nix the unpopular staggered bells initiative, it is still scheduled to go ahead this fall.
“The three most powerful people in Renfrew County are Bob White, Mary Lynn Schauer and Jennifer Barnes (the members of the transportation consortium),” Mr. Frew said. “They have gone against the school trustees, school administrator, the educators, bus operators and families. These three people seem to have the clout to implement this.”
According to the website, the Renfrew County Joint Transportation Consortium is a not-for-profit organization set up between the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board and the Renfrew County District School Board to provide safe, cost effective, on time delivery of transportation services for the students in Renfrew County. The Transportation Consortium contracts out all home to school transportation service for the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board and the Renfrew County District School Board.
Mr. Frew said parents have been appealing on various grounds, including the financial hardship it will cost families now having to scramble for before-school care for elementary students as well as the mental health impact of having less access to after-school-programs because school for elementary school students won’t end until 3:30 now each day. In Killaloe, the Community Resource Centre runs a popular after-school program which focuses not only on skills but also mental health aspects. For the program to run effectively there needs to be a two-hour time slot and this is impossible with the later school day for students.
“There is also the winter issue,” he said. “Now you are scheduling two runs in Wilno in winter. The bus drivers don’t want it. This would be hectic for them.”
Rural kids have a lot of activities to do in the evenings but with the later school closure time for elementary students it means less time for both chores and the fun aspects of life, he said.
“And we live in a remote area so the extracurriculars require transportation and getting to your obligations when you are an hour behind will be a challenge,” he said.
In meeting with representatives from the two school boards and the consortium, the parents were told this would mean $100,000 in savings. Mr. Frew disputes that but noted even if this were true it is a miniscule part of the budget of each school board.
He said they were also told there is a school bus driver shortage. He disputed this, saying if anything the staggered bells are making things worse.
“Jim Manion, who just retired (school bus operator), said one of the main reasons he is getting out of this is the staggered bells,” he said.
Having staggered bells in an area where students are widely dispersed in a rural area makes no sense, Mr. Frew said.
“This is an urban concept and they are trying to push it in a rural environment,” he said.
While this has been implemented in many areas, there are exceptions, he noted. Bancroft, for example, does not have staggered bells and the rural environment there is quite similar to the Madawaska Valley, Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards and Brudenell, Lyndoch and Raglan areas where these students live.
“The uniqueness of our area says this is not a practical thing to do,” he said.
A virtual town hall meeting on the issue allowed parents to make their case, but in the end the Transportation Consortium flatly stated the staggered bells will be brought in anyway.
“They heard our concerns and the trustees said there is a good argument to hold off,” he noted. “We were told both boards have to be in agreement and it seemed to us they were. Then the consortium has said they are going ahead.”
As this school year draws to a close, Mr. Frew is hoping the consortium will rethink this issue and more parents will raise their objections.
“We would love to see this overturned,” he said. “We want to encourage anyone concerned to reach out to their elected trustees and reach out to the consortium. This is bone headed.”
The trustees in question are Bob Michaud – firstname.lastname@example.org for the Catholic board and David Kaiser - email@example.com for the public board. The members of the transportation consortium are: Bob White – firstname.lastname@example.org; Mary Lynn Schauer at email@example.com and Jennifer Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a trustee, Mr. Michaud told the Leader he was very cognizant of the challenges this is presenting for families in the Madawaska Family of Schools area and sympathetic to them, especially following such a turbulent school year with COVID-19 closures and virtual learning.
“Probably the timing wasn’t great,” he admitted. “The community came forward with concerns, and rightly so. There were the concerns about the impact of COVID and adding more on parents.”
He recalled when the board brought in staggered bells around 2010, the Madawaska Valley schools were excluded.
“It was not as feasible as it is now,” he said. “I understand there have been several looks at it.”
He said staggered bells has been something which was not a popular initiative, even a decade ago.
“Back in 2010 people were unhappy but everyone adjusted,” he said.
And there were savings found, he stressed. Now there will also be savings found, he added.
However, as concerns were raised, the board did look at it again this year.
“We were considering postponing,” he added.
However, finding bus drivers has been an issue and staggered bells will make it easier to find the bus drivers, he said. Because of the funding formulas this is the better option, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense when you see the bus going by,” he admitted. “Even if you run more miles, you get more money. It works. We have been doing it for 12 years and it will save money.”
Trustee Michaud said his concern is the timing and he admits this year has been challenging for families.
“It was the question of if this was the year,” he said. “I was asking for a postponement. I understand the concerns in the rural isolated areas.”
Mr. Michaud said the Catholic board was in favour of a postponement of the staggered bells and this was passed on to the transportation consortium.
“Everyone was on board in saying with COVID we wish we could do something different,” he said. “The decision will happen eventually, but we could have postponed.”
Poor Consultation Process
At the public board, Mr. Kaiser said while there was analysis done of the savings prior to the decision, the consultation process to parents in the area was poor and for that he apologized.
“There was not a proper public consultation,” he said. “There was a lot of miscommunication. I did apologize at the public meeting we did not do consultation first.”
When staggered bells were introduced in the other parts of the county, there were many public meetings, presentations and sharing of information, he said. The savings would be found as a result of less buses on the road and less runs, he said.
As well, the board is preparing for an efficiency review from the province and showing greater efficiency in bussing is important.
“It would help that rating percentage and give us more funding,” he said. “It made sense to look at staggered bells for the Barry’s Bay area.”
Following the virtual meeting, where about 70 people were in attendance, the board agreed to delay the implementation for a year. He said this was a decision both boards agreed on.
However, this has since become impossible, he said. The decisive factor is operators are having a hard time finding drivers and the closure of Manion Bus Lines has created a large void, he said. The company had eight runs.
“Tenders were put out and they were unable to find anyone to take those runs,” he said.
Mr. Kaiser said he is very aware this is an inconvenience for parents. However, the board has to follow guidelines established from the province.
“There are too many restrictions from the Ministry of Education,” he noted. “We can’t ignore this.”
Staggered bells have been proven to bring savings to other parts of the county, he said, and the board will hold the transportation consortium accountable to see the results in the Madawaska Family of Schools.
“We are confident the savings will be realized,” he said.
Money saved is available to go into the classroom to help students, he added.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader