Left behind: Elma student denied busing by STEO

Katherine and Rachel Hewetson (The Leader/Blancher photo)

ELMA – A South Dundas student  is now without a way to get to school because of changes made by the consortium which operates transportation for the Upper Canada District School Board.

Katherine Hewetson, a Grade 8 student who attends Seaway District High School, lives on County Road 7 in Elma. Elma is the dividing line between Seaway, and North Dundas District High School. From junior kindergarten to Grade 6, she attended Morrisburg Public School. Hewetson started attending school months after the closure of Elma Public School.

From junior kindergarten until the end of Grade 3, she went to a house near her home to catch the bus.

“It was very close to our home, but I wanted her to go to Morrisburg Public,” said Rachel Hewetson, Katherine’s mother. “It wasn’t a big deal to bring her down the road the catch the bus.”

From Grade 4 until the end of Grade 7, the bus, which passed the Hewetson’s home before and after its run, stopped at the Hewetson’s.

“We called and asked if it could be done since the bus already passes our house, and the school board said yes,” Rachel said.

That arrangement changed at the end of this school year. Katherine received a letter signed by the UCDSB and the transportation consortium, Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario. The letter stated that her courtesy/out of bounds bus transportation would expire at the end of the school year. Further on in the letter it stated that Katherine would not be eligible for bus transportation any further.

“I was upset,” said Rachel, who appealed the results to STEO.

The changes to transportation were discussed at the June meeting of the UCDSB trustee board. The Leader reported on this in the June 27th edition of the paper.

Two changes were made. One was modifying the distance from school for students who walked, which put the walking distance for Grade 7-8 students in line with Grade 9-12 students. This was done because the UCDSB follows the K-6, 7-12 schooling model.

The second change involved removing courtesy rides for busing. At the June 6th meeting, superintendent of business Robert Backstrom told the board that courtesy rides involved kids within walking zones who are riding the bus because seats were available.

When asked at the time about some of the grandfathered transportation routes, Backstrom told the board those were not being dealt with for the next two-to-three years.

The implemented changes mean a savings to the UCDSB of over $200,000 per year.

In the board’s report, it stated that, “existing  out-of-boundary students will be coded as grandfathered (temporary exemption) with an end date of June 2019 and reviewed annually.”

The Hewetson’s were not even given to the end of the 2018-19 school year.

“I’m really upset about this,” Katherine told The Leader. “My friends are at Seaway, I like the teachers there.”

The family appealed the decision starting in August but was getting nowhere. Rachel even offered to drive Katherine to the next nearest stop, “they said no.”

There is a STEO bus route for Seaway, which goes along Saving Street, also part of the northern boundary for Seaway DHS. The family offered to drive Katherine to a stop on that street, “again they said no.”

Hewetson contacted UCDSB trustee Jeremy Armer, MPP Jim McDonell, and the school, none of whom provided any help.

“Jeremy [Armer] called back asking if anything had changed, and that he would call back,” she said. “But he didn’t.”

When asked why not change schools to North Dundas, Rachel said said she did not want to have to do that.

“This is the group of students she’s been with since she was four years old,” Rachel said. “Her peers, her friends, she’s grown up with these kids.”

She does not believe she is being unreasonable asking the board to transport her daughter, especially when she is willing to drive to the next available stop.

“Busing is such a big factor in a student’s day,” said Sandra Cummins, chair of the parent council at Seaway.

She said that parents should be able to see any potential busing issues, and have accurate information from the board when deciding which schools their children may attend.

“If a family is informed by the board from the beginning that their busing changes will be grandfathered in, then the board has an obligation to honour that,” Cummins said.

Without any bus transportation, Katherine will begin her school year at home.

“I can’t drive her into the school due to my commute to work in Ottawa,” Rachel said. Meanwhile the family will continue to appeal to the UCDSB and STEO. If that fails, the family will look at other options including changing boards.

“The bus for St. Thomas Aquinas stops on the next road, I’ll drive her over there if this can’t be resolved,” she said. St. Thomas Aquinas is the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario high school in Russell.

For Katherine, being caught in the busing issue has been stressful for her.

“It’s been pretty frustrating,” she said. “I’ve been really upset since this has been going on. I just want to go to school, see my friends, and learn.”

The Leader contacted officials from STEO and the UCDSB about the bus issue.

Janet Murray, general manager and chief administrative officer for STEO told The Leader that there were privacy considerations relating to the Hewetson’s case. Murray did say that the grandfathering end date change related to students without an expiration date already on their file.

“In the face of significant increases in transportation costs, STEO and the boards remain committed to ensuring that seats remain available for eligible families and for those who need them most,” Murray said. “When courtesy transportation is provided to families, it is communicated at the time of approval that the arrangement is temporary and subject to annual review.”

Murray added that there was no impact this year to current grandfathered riding arrangements.

No response was received from the UCDSB by publication time.