The long and winding road to school

Tommy and Emerson McMillan standing where the bus stop should be as her bus passes by.

SOUTH DUNDAS –  Imagine watching your school bus go by your home every day and having to drive nine kilometres down the road to catch it. That is the reality for a Grade 8 student at Seaway District High School after transportation policy changed at the Upper Canada District School Board.

Janet and Tommy McMillan have been dealing with the school board and its transportation consortium, Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario, since the summer of 2018 to have the bus that travels past their home, pick up their daughter Emerson.

The McMillans live on the north-east corner of Safford Road and Haddo Road, north of Iroquois. From Kindergarten to Grade 6, the family had bus transportation to Iroquois Public School, which has the same school boundaries as Seaway.

“She went to IPS and was picked up and dropped off everyday by bus,” said Janet. She said the family noticed an issue in the spring of  2018.

“We were invited to the Grade 7 orientation at Seaway, and went to it,” she said. “We came back from March Break and saw an invitation to South Grenville’s orientation in the mail but didn’t think anything of it.”

As summer began, the family learned that Emerson was enrolled by the board to attend South Grenville District High School in Prescott.

“We didn’t do that, it was automatic,” Janet said. “We filled out the  paperwork to move her to Seaway where we thought she was supposed to go  to school.”

That move, back to what the family thought was her home school did not qualify her for transportation to Seaway. Officials with STEO denied the  McMillan family bus transportation because that they do not live inside  the Seaway DHS boundary.

“This is stupid,” Tommy said. “We live in South Dundas. Pay taxes in  South Dundas. She went to school in Iroquois. And the bus drives past  our house every morning.”

The family filed an appeal to STEO to receive transportation, but that was denied. After that, the family modified their bus stop address to that of Emerson’s grandfather’s on Carman Road, nine  kilometres away. Tommy said this was done with the full knowledge of  board and STEO officials. The address change has given Emerson a seat on the very same bus that goes by her home.

“But we have to drive down the road to catch it,” Tommy said. “It  doesn’t make sense. We’re not asking for a special bus route, we’re  right there. The bus stops next door to our house.”

Beginning in 2018, the UCDSB has been reviewing and modifying its student transportation policies. In urban settlement areas, walking distances were increased. Out-of-bounds and grand-fathered transportation arrangements were reviewed by the board, and STEO. In the fall of 2019, the board overhauled its  transportation policy, and will no longer provide out-of-boundary  transportation to families. But for the McMillan family, they don’t feel they should be in the South Grenville school area.

“We should be in the Seaway area,” said Janet.

UCDSB boundary map for Seaway District High School.

The McMillan family are the only residents with school-aged children on east side of Safford Road without transportation to Seaway. Officials with the UCDSB and STEO would not confirm any individual bus arrangements, citing privacy concerns.

While maps provided on the UCDSB’s website show the McMillan property is  on the east side of the boundary line and place the residence in Seaway’s boundary, UCDSB communications manager April Scott-Clarke said  those maps were for “illustrative purposes only.”

She said that the home school is determined by civic address. That can be confirmed using the STEO website. According to Scott-Clarke,  families are not reassigned to schools outside of their home school.

“We don’t reassign students,” Scott-Clarke said. “If students attending schools out of boundary, and transportation is no longer going to be  provided, then STEO is responsible for communicating with that family.”

According to Janet Murray, general manager and CAO for STEO, school attendance boundaries are established by the UCDSB.

“Transportation boundaries are aligned accordingly,” she said. “School attendance boundaries as determined by the school boards and do not  necessarily mirror municipal boundaries.”

The school boundaries were last changed by the UCDSB in 2007-08 during the Boundary 2020 accommodation review process.

The boundary for Seaway was unaffected in the 2016-17 accommodation review process.

Neither the UCDSB or STEO would confirm whether or not civic address information used to create school boundaries is verified with municipalities.

“This doesn’t make sense,” said South Dundas deputy-mayor Kirsten Gardner. “There’s no additional cost if the bus is going by there already.”

Gardner said she could understand enforcing boundary rules if Seaway DHS was overpopulated, or there was an additional cost to providing transportation.

“But that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a South Dundas student who wants to go to a South Dundas high school. Why would the answer not be yes?”

Gardner said the municipality would be open to working with the school board regarding boundary issues.

“If the boundary issues are negatively impacting the numbers at Seaway, and a slight switch in the boundary would increase the number of students at Seaway, we would absolutely work with the board.”

Overall boundary issues aside, for the McMillan family, they would just like their daughter to be able to catch the bus from their home.

“We’re just frustrated with dealing with this situation,” Tommy said.

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