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800-plus area high schoolers barred from buses after transport agency finds they live too close to campus

By Dan Brown, The London Free Press

Lisa Hutchinson isn’t happy with new busing plans that will have her children walking along busy Oxford Street West across the Thames River to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic secondary school. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Lisa Hutchinson isn’t happy with new busing plans that will have her children walking along busy Oxford Street West across the Thames River to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic secondary school. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Talk about missing the bus. More than 800 London-area high schoolers who thought they had a ride to class in September have found out they don’t.

The students, some of whom have been taking the bus for years, have been told the bus won’t stop for them anymore because they live within walking distance of their school.

“It’s outrageous. It’s shocking. And it’s troublesome that they would now identify 825 students” who have been left in the lurch by Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services, said Lisa Hutchinson.

She’s the spokesperson for families affected by the changes whose children are or will be students at St. Thomas Aquinas secondary school.

“For me, that’s a lot of displaced students,” said Linda Steel, a trustee with the London District Catholic school board who’s fighting alongside Hutchinson to get the busing restored.

That number includes all high school students across both boards in the district. That means students at 27 of the 36 high schools in the district are affected, said Maureen Cosyn Heath, chief administrator for Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services.

The non-profit corporation runs busing for the London District Catholic and Thames Valley boards.

“We were left scrambling. The whole thing was ill-executed,” Huthinson said.

“Those families have had the rug pulled out from under them,” said London West NDP MPP Peggy Sattler, her party’s education critic.

“To me, this is a big concern for families and students who had made a decision in good faith,” Sattler said.

Some families may have bought homes with the understanding their children would be bused, only to find now they don’t have a ride, Sattler said.

“Sounds to me like quite a large number of students to be affected,” said Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London. “I think parents should get together and get organized.”

“We’ve had a few communications with (Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services),” said Yurek, who prefers to deal with trustees.

Hutchinson said her group is considering chartering its own buses. She also has spoken to London Transit about filling the void in September.

“We have to find a way to get these kids safely to and from school,” she said.

At the heart of the change is a policy that dictates students who live within 3.2 kilometres of a high school have to find their own way to class.

“For me, it makes me wonder what’s the underlying reason, the hidden agenda here?” Hutchinson said. “What comes to mind is, you’re taking from one (group of students) to do what? We have been told specifically that it wasn’t about money.”

Said Sattler: “One thinks . . . this would provide a bit of budget relief” to a cash-strapped Education Ministry.

The 3.2-km policy was in place, but wasn’t being enforced, until the busing corporation did what Cosyn Heath calls a “periodic review” that took two years. “There hadn’t been one undertaken in a while,” she said.

“We made a determination” about which students would no longer get service, also adding service for some teens who previously didn’t qualify, Cosyn Heath said.

There was no public participation because it was an “operational review,” Cosyn Heath said.

Sattler said she’s written to Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services expressing her concerns, but has not received a reply.

Matt Reid, the London trustee who chairs the Thames Valley board, said trustees have received complaints, too. “There have been some parents that have expressed concerns,” he said.

Cosyn Heath said families were given five months’ notice of the changes. Ninety days is required in the corporation’s policy.

“I think school boards have been stretched,” said Yurek, who believes this is a classic case of parents paying higher and higher taxes while receiving less in the way of services from the government of Premier Kathleen Wynne.

danbrown@postmedia.com

twitter.com/DanatLFPress

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Who can ride a school bus?

High school students who live more than 3.2 km from school

Elementary pupils who live more than 1.6 km from school

The distance is determined by planning software to ensure consistency, says Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services, which co-ordinates busing for the London District Catholic and Thames Valley District school boards