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Out-of-catchment bus change leaving parents scrambling in Sooke, West Shore

Students who choose schools out of their catchment might not get a ride this year
A change in Sooke School District bus services is leaving kids who go to school out of their catchment areas in limbo for at least the first month. (File - Black Press Media)

Chris and Doerte Halling-Brown have two kids enrolled at Saseenos Elementary School, not far from their home in Sooke. The kids, entering Grades 2 and 4, have been at Saseenos since they attended the nature kindergarten program, though they’re technically not in the school’s catchment zone.

They take the school bus, a service the Halling-Browns are grateful for since both parents work full-time – he’s in cybersecurity, and she’s a government bureaucrat. Rush hour parking at Saseenos is horrific for one thing, so they’re glad to not add to or be part of the congestion.

But this year could see them waiting in the Sooke Road traffic jam, dropping off and picking up their kids like all the other parent drivers.

In February, the Sooke School Board changed the bus plan so that students outside school catchments won’t be guaranteed a spot on the bus. Before this, students could get picked up from nearly any neighbourhood to go to any school. It made some routes wildly inefficient, and the district felt it took away from the neighbourhood focus it wants schools to have.

Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull said they needed to make some kind of a change to improve bus routes that were getting too long long.

“Up until last year we were almost acting as an Uber service to our districts,” he said.

During a year-long transportation service review that solicited feedback from parents, the number one complaint was that the routes and waits were too long. So district staff looked at options, and proposed a change to focus bus service on in-catchment students.

They added exceptions for students in programs only offered at out-of-catchment schools – like nature kindergarten or French immersion – or whose catchment school is full. But the Halling-Brown kids, who for years have been allowed to go to out-of-catchment schools with no problem, are suddenly out of luck.

They’re not alone.

Across the district of 11,000 students, about 4,000 take the bus. Of those, the district estimates between 400 and 500 students are out of catchment by choice – i.e. not for French immersion or because their schools are full.

The district has said they might squeeze these non-catchment students on but that it won’t know until October. It’ll take a month to sort out the kinks in the routes, with new and late registrations and all the families who have moved.

“We’re going to have to make it work, but it does prove complicated logistically. We both work full-time, and although I work from home, I will have to go back to the office at some point,” Halling-Brown said. “To have lost the services is disappointing, and secondly, to have such poor communication is really frustrating.”

In February, the last he’d heard when the district told him the routes would be sorted by the summer. If the district could not accommodate the Halling-Browns, they’d have time to consider transferring to their catchment school, Ecole Poirier – a five-minute drive from compared to eight minutes to Saseenos.

READ MORE: Sooke School District cracking open the books for September

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But now Halling-Brown finds out they have to wait until October, and in the meantime, the two after-school programs Doerte knows about are filled up. Halling-Brown has emailed the district, the mayor, district councillors and anyone he can think of. But so far, there’s been no reply.

B.C. Transit has increased runs of several bus routes for September, as it anticipates more riders. On the West Shore, routes 50, 52, 59 and 60 will have increased buses, but nothing like that is planned for Sooke.

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