An argument is breaking out over the future of bus services for Hay River students after the local district education authority said it no longer had the money to keep buses running.
MLAs and the education minister are involved and, in an extraordinary exchange in the territorial legislature on Friday, politicians even contemplated the dissolution of the education council responsible – which one MLA accuses of refusing to hand over the necessary cash. The education council says that interpretation is wrong.
The dispute became public after the Hay River District Education Authority (DEA) chair sent a letter to parents of students of its three schools on Tuesday, advising them that bus services would be cancelled at the end of the school year unless ongoing funding was found.
The DEA runs three buses: one for students living in West Point, one for students living in Paradise Gardens (about a 20-minute drive from the school), and one for students living in the town.
Combined, the service costs just over $150,000 per year to run. Around $82,000 of that funding comes from the Department of Education’s funding formula, which takes into account things like the number of students and the distance they live from the schools.
The rest of the money is pulled by the DEA from other budgets – typically from its operations and maintenance line item – to make up the shortfall.
“We feel we’re at that breaking point,” DEA chair Mark Harris told Cabin Radio on Thursday, explaining why his group had told parents the service’s future is under threat.
“We feel that taking this stand is our last chance at basically getting us all to the table,” said Harris, referring to the DEA, the South Slave Divisional Education Council (or DEC, which provides the DEA with funding), and the NWT’s education department, which provides the DEC with funding.
“This is something that the government needs to fund in its entirety, to make sure those students that require that mode of transportation to get the school get it, and we don’t lose that,” Harris continued.
“It’s a hard stance to take. But unfortunately … you can’t continue down the same path and keep getting the same amount or less, and just trying to reduce your services to the point where you would have nothing left to be able to provide anyone.”
Harris said the DEA decided to ask for the service to be fully funded rather than scale back service, as other communities like Fort Smith have done over the years.
Why is this a problem now?
The Hay River DEA owns its three buses – it bought them years ago in an effort to reduce costs – and hires contractors through a request-for-proposal process to ensure it is getting the most cost-effective deal.
But as student enrolment has declined, so has the amount of funding the DEA receives per student through the NWT’s funding formula. At the same time, the cost of running a bus service has continued to increase.
Around 20 years ago, the community had more than 900 students enrolled. This school year, there are just 490 students attending the town’s three public schools.
Harris said the DEA tried to implement a user fee to offset transportation costs in 2019-20 but, in response, ridership dropped by around 50 students. This year, just 122 students are taking the bus. Prior to the user fee and Covid-19, ridership reached 172 students.
“It’s a necessity for a lot of kids to be able to get to school. Not all parents have the ability to move their children to and from school,” said Harris, noting the DEA is well aware of the impact a lack of buses could have on some of its more vulnerable students.
He said the DEA has done everything it can to look for new funding – from reaching out to the Town of Hay River to asking the DEC and GNWT for help.
“If we don’t get these busing dollars, it will have a big potential impact on enrolment numbers,” he added.
Funding for the next school year is based on a school’s enrolment numbers during the first month of the current school year. If fewer students are showing up to school full-time, the DEA will get less money, making it even more difficult financially to provide support for transportation.
“Due to the vastness of our area that we’re servicing for school [and that] it’s winter eight months out of the year, it becomes more or less an essential service to try and get kids to school,” Harris said.
DEC has used surplus money on busing
Currently, the NWT’s Education Act states education districts may provide transportation and can charge for that transportation if they choose, but the act does not require that buses are provided.
Harris said talks with the department and the DEC, which comprises representatives from all five of the South Slave’s district education authorities, “didn’t manifest into additional dollars at this point in time.”
That’s why the Hay River DEA sent a letter to parents encouraging them to raise the issue of transportation funding with the town’s two MLAs: Rocky Simpson and his son, RJ Simpson, who is also the minister of education.
“We’re hoping that by raising that concern and having it dealt with at the political level, we may be able to create a positive impact here,” Harris said.
And the issue has caught the attention of Hay River’s MLAs, who discussed transportation funding in the Legislative Assembly on Friday morning.
“Indigenous students and students from lower-income families will be the most affected,” Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson told the legislature, before targeting the DEC’s last reported surplus of $3.3 million.
He suggested the surplus held at the regional level should be used to top up the local DEA’s transportation costs.
But the DEC says it has already done that.
In a May 10 four-page letter – on which Rocky Simpson was copied – South Slave DEC chair Ann Pischinger said her organization had allocated $1.5 million from its surplus over the past two years to South Slave DEAs and schools.
In 2019, the Hay River DEA received an additional $390,000 from the DEC’s surplus to pay for buses. In 2020, the DEA received another $195,000.
“Unfortunately, the SSDEC is not expecting to be in an excess surplus situation for 2021-22, largely as a result of these previous surplus distributions to the DEAs and schools,” Pischinger told Harris in the May 10 letter, while agreeing with him that transportation funding from the GNWT is inadequate.
The DEC said Rocky Simpson had not been in touch to discuss transportation funding prior to speaking in the legislature about the surplus. Simpson went as far as to publicly question whether the DEC should be dissolved.
Meanwhile, the DEC expects its surplus will be fully depleted by the end of this school year.
Rocky, the surplus, and how it’s reported
In the legislature, both Rocky and RJ Simpson maintained the issue was not the GNWT underfunding school divisions, but rather the South Slave DEC holding back money from Hay River’s DEA.
“It is not clear why a surplus of that size exists and why it is not available to cover the busing shortfall. It begs the question of where the SSDEC’s priorities are,” Rocky said.
“Teachers in Hay River have shed tears over this decision. This says our children’s education is not as important as a bureaucracy that is unwilling to release some of that $3.3 million surplus.
“If the SSDEC is not willing to step up, then I would suggest they step down or be removed by the minister of education,” he said, later asking son RJ if he would direct the SSDEC to fund the shortfall or “dissolve the SSDEC and appoint a public administrator” instead.
The DEC contends that what is missing from Rocky’s statements is an understanding of how its surplus is reported.
“The majority of the SSDEC’s remaining surplus is made up of DEA and school surpluses,” Pischinger wrote to Harris. Of the $3.3 million surplus shown on financial statements, more than $1.5 million had already been allocated at the school and DEA level – it’s just “rolled up and recorded” as one surplus.
Pischinger said the Hay River schools and DEA combined had a surplus of $650,000 at the end of June 2020, which is expected to be depleted to a $400,000 surplus by the end of this school year.
Meanwhile, the DEC has approved a deficit budget for the 2021-22 school year, and is projecting a surplus of less than $500,000 by next June.
“This is very low and already puts the SSDEC at risk of not being able to meet payroll in months when ECE contributions are smaller than payroll, and/or in the case of unexpected and uncontrollable costs next year,” she wrote.
The DEC outlines reasons it aims to maintain a surplus in its financial surplus policy, which states that the GNWT distributes money to the DEC “monthly but unevenly” and warns that the DEC must prepare for uncontrollable expenses like pension buybacks and substitute teacher costs.
Additionally, South Slave DEC superintendent Curtis Brown wrote in an email, RJ is the minister responsible for approving the DEC’s surplus spending plan, which included the extra $195,000 the DEA received this school year.
DEA makes decisions on how to spend money
Brown said underfunded transportation has been discussed at the DEC level for years, by all South Slave communities.
“There are communities that don’t get any portion of busing funding but want to provide busing,” he said. In the South Slave, Hay River, Fort Smith, and Fort Resolution receive funding for transportation, while the Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Łútsël K’é don’t.
“I would say that I’m not aware of a DEA, probably anywhere, that feels that the funding is adequate to what services they’d like to provide for busing,” he said, noting Pischinger has asked education ministers over the years to improve the funding formula, just as the Hay River DEA is now lobbying for extra funding.
“To be fair to the folks, the minister, and ECE up the line, they’re in the same boat. Their response is there’s only so much money to go around,” Brown said.
He agreed with Harris that eventually, there comes a tipping point when dipping into other budgets to fund transportation isn’t sustainable.
“Do you cancel one of your second language programs? Do you cancel art or music? Or shop program?” Brown asked. “And when you’re making those kinds of comparisons, it makes it very, very difficult to proceed with something that some other communities have simply chosen not to provide any more – and that is busing.”
At the legislature, dealing with his father’s suggestion that he consider dissolving the DEC, RJ Simpson said he can provide the DEC with directions but the DEC doesn’t have to follow them.
The minister acknowledged he has the power to dissolve the council, but admitted he “wouldn’t have very solid ground” for doing so.
“There are very few restrictions on how that money is to be spent. This isn’t a money issue. There’s money there, there is money in the bank … it’s a case where a decision has been made to not allocate that money,” RJ said, not directly addressing whether the GNWT would step in to fund Hay River’s busing if no alternative funding was found.
In her letter, Pischinger said the DEC and DEAs can’t count on surpluses, since “despite sound financial management, including conservative budgeting, frugal spending, and remarkable success with fundraising over the years, the SSDEC has still found itself with unexpected costs” that have forced it to reduce allocations.
DEC, DEA didn’t hold emergency meeting
In his letter to parents, Harris said the DEC had denied the DEA’s request to meet and told the DEA “to make appropriate cuts to services to fall in line with our underfunded areas.”
In her letter, Pischinger had encouraged Harris to “reconsider your ‘all or nothing’ stance” and find ways to reduce costs, such as reducing busing services as Fort Smith has done.
“At this time, the SSDEC doesn’t anticipate having flexibility to further allocate surplus funding,” Brown said, explaining why the DEC thought the emergency meeting requested by the DEA was unnecessary.
Brown said all DEAs have priority areas for which they advocated and, if the DEC decided to fund something in one community, it would mean taking money away from the other four communities in the district.
“The SSDEC can again advocate to the minister and ECE to revisit the busing formula in light of your reference to the unique situation in Hay River (and Fort Smith) where families live in developments well out of town,” Pischinger wrote.
In the legislature, the minister committed to meeting with the DEC and DEA about the transportation funding issue.
The Department of Education, Culture, and Employment did not answer Cabin Radio’s questions about the funding formula and what it was doing to work with the DEC and DEA by a Friday afternoon deadline.
Spokesperson Briony Grabke declined to allow Cabin Radio to interview a GNWT representative, saying, “For this topic the preference is for a written response.”