Transit troubles at Lindale

Lindsay Newsham (centre) stands with her children Walker and Hudson outside Lindale School on Wednesday, June 14. (Crystal Schick/Times-Herald)

Students from catchment area will be allowed to enroll at city school, but yard pick up won’t be provided

The Board of Directors of the Prairie South School Division have backtracked on a decision made that would see new students from rural areas excluded from Lindale School in Moose Jaw.

“(They) still won’t have yard-site transportation,” said director of education Tony Baldwin on Wednesday morning, the day after the board meeting where the decision was made. “That’s going to be a challenge for some of those families, because the alternate yard service, it may be a mile up the road and it may be 10 miles up the road, and it certainly will change as bus routes and transportation catchments change.”

Essentially, the division eliminated dual catchment areas and, citing busing costs, had advised it will stop providing transportation for currently enrolled students from Caronport and Briercrest, among others, to Lindale School as of the next school year.

This means students can stay in that school, but only if their parents can get them there.

Originally, their younger siblings had been barred from registering at Lindale entirely, but the board reversed its position on that part of the plan on Tuesday.

It was a packed house at the board meeting on Tuesday.

About 20 people in at least three delegations turned out to try to convince the division to reverse the decisions made that would affect students coming to Moose Jaw’s Lindale School from rural areas and smaller communities outside the city.

The change in busing ultimately comes down to the board’s decision to eliminate what are called dual catchment areas, Baldwin explained. In these areas, families have been able to decide between sending their elementary-aged children to a closer school and sending them to Lindale.

To complicate matters, there is a distinction between a transportation catchment area – in which students will be provided transportation to get to a school – and an attendance catchment area – a place a family has to live to be allowed to go to a certain school.

Until Tuesday, Lindale was a closed catchment school, meaning that only people who lived in its area, which amounts to a donut around Moose Jaw, were allowed to attend. Baldwin said this decision was originally made to help control numbers, but that the division certainly has schools that are more full.

Either way, the board decided Tuesday to relax that stance.

“Anyone who lives anywhere in Prairie South, except for in the Moose Jaw elementary school catchments, if they want to go to Lindale School, they can,” said Baldwin. “That makes Lindale the same as all of our other schools. We have lots of kids who live near one rural school and go to another because it just makes sense for their families. We allow that all the time.”

The two main delegations that appeared before the board on Tuesday were from Briercrest and Caronport. While both groups are faced with similar challenges, there are also differences.

The Briercrest situation

About a dozen people turned out in support of the Briercrest delegation at the board meeting at the division office.

The village itself lost its school in 2007. Since then, families have had the choice between sending their children to school at Lindale in Moose Jaw, about 40 kilometres to the northwest, or to the school in Avonlea, which is about 30 kilometres in the other direction. It’s an even split right now, with about 10 students taking buses to each school. The community, as of Tuesday, lies just outside the Lindale catchment area.

“I think we got our point across,” delegation leader Stephanie Funke told the Times-Herald after her presentation. “Not only will this not save them anything, it could cost them money.”

The group had argued that it wasn’t reasonable for students to be sent to Avonlea when their parents largely worked in Moose Jaw, especially when extra-curricular activities and the lack of childcare in Briercrest and Avonlea were taken into account.

Gail Whitfield, who also spoke in the delegation, noted that she had personally poured a very conservative estimate of $50,000 into a dance school in the city when her daughter was in school, something she wouldn’t have been able to do if her daughter had gone to Avonlea.

“Rural people support the next local trading centre,” she told the board, explaining that school and work bring people to the city.

“It’s going to have an impact on the economy here.”

Board chair Shawn Davidson told the Briercrest group that the decision they were protesting affected a number of communities, though their village was different because of its proximity to the catchment area border.

“We do need to have other discussions about other communities,” he said.

Trustee Darcy Pryor asked if, when the Briercrest school was closed in 2007, residents had ever been given any indication that they may lose busing services to Moose Jaw, something the delegation vehemently denied.

“We were promised the world,” said Gail Whitfield afterwards. “And now we’re being told the world stops here.”

The Caronport situation

Lindsay Newsham is facing the same busing issues, but in a different context. She and her family live outside of Caronport in what used to be the Lindale catchment area.

Whereas Briercrest was a dual catchment area, which has now been eliminated, Caronport is a brand new single catchment zone. Newsham’s home is now in that zone.

“One week ago, I was totally blindsided when I received an email saying that my eldest would no longer be provided transportation to Lindale,” Newsham told the board. “I’ve been sick ever since.”

She also noted that Caronport Elementary School is known to be a Christian environment, something she and her husband are not comfortable with for their children. She said she fears her sons will be singled out when they don’t opt to take Christian classes, which is an option as the school is indeed public, but it’s not one anyone has ever chosen there.

Newsham’s children currently ride the No. 13 bus into Moose Jaw, and it drives right past her house. If they were to switch to Palliser Heights, which she said is an option the family has considered, they would ride the same bus. Access to minority-language education is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so the division would have to provide the busing.

“Forcing us to switch our children from Lindale to Palliser would have zero cost savings for Prairie South,” she said. “We would basically be moving our kids from one overpopulated school to another overpopulated school with no financial benefit, and against their will.”

After her presentation, she said she hoped the board heard her and that her family just wanted to be able to continue at Lindale, as they had been told they could.

“I just have to keep fighting for my kids,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be done fighting, even if today goes horribly. I’ll continue on.”

Cost-cutting measures

It’s no secret that budgets of government-funded organizations across the province have been hit hard this year and Prairie South is no exception.

Baldwin explained that after careful study, the board found they could save money by eliminating the dual catchment areas and reducing the number of miles travelled by buses. This process also includes setting up alternate pick up points, which means that while parents need to get their kids in the car and take them to the bus, they might not have to drive them all the way to school.

“If they want to go to Caronport Elementary School, then we will send a bus to their home and pick up their kids and take them to school and bring them home after,” said Baldwin, with the same idea applying to Briercrest children attending Avonlea. “If they want to attend Lindale, they may, because they’re not in a catchment for a Moose Jaw elementary school. But they’ll have to access alternate yard service or they’ll need to bring their kids in.”

Commenting on the entire process, he said it had been evidence of a healthy, functional system that allows for dissent and flexibility.

“We had some guidelines that we followed correctly and that was tough on parents,” said Baldwin. “So we had some parents come and provide some additional information to the board, and with that fulsome set of facts, the board was able to do some thinking and I think they’ve landed in a good spot.”

While the head of the delegation from Briercrest could not be reached for comment before press time, Newsham said this latest change does not go far enough.

“I’m happy that my kids are allowed to stay at Lindale, but it’s still a big inconvenience for me to have to drive them,” she said, adding that she has multiple sclerosis, which can make it difficult for her to drive.

“I can’t commit to being able to drive for the next nine years, when the bus is already going past my house.”