Details continue to be scrutinized, but so far, Rocky View Schools estimates it could up to $3.9 million more in student transportation funding this fall with the unveiling of major funding reforms yesterday by Alberta Education minister Adriana LaGrange.

Rocky View Schools board of trustees chair Norma Lang says that number is only theoretical at this point, but it's good news nonetheless.

"The increase to transportation funding that was announced is definitely a boon for Rocky View schools," says Chair Lang. "Our transportation funding will climb from currently this year a total of $13.6 million up to, I'm going to use the word theoretical, to $17.5 million for next year."

"We have been facing increasing cost pressures, inflation pressures, and bus driver shortages, so an increase in funding definitely will help alleviate those issues."

Yesterday, Education minister Adriana LaGrange rolled out what she calls the most significant reforms in school transportation in decades.

School authorities will receive an additional $414 million over the next three years for their student transportation budgets. The reforms will increase the number of students eligible for transportation, including students attending alternative and independent schools, shortened rides for some rural students, address costs and inflationary pressures, and increase funding for bus driver training. It will continue to include a fuel price contingency program to provide school authorities with additional funding to address high fuel costs.

A school trustee for 11 1/2 years before becoming education minister, LaGrange says she fully understands the transportation challenges faced by school authorities.

"Pretty well after I became the minister, I started the Student Transportation Task Force to do the deep dive, because I knew we had issues around, and we needed to really explore what were the real costs. We audited a number of school authorities on the recommendation of the Student Transportation Task Force so we could get the real cost factors and make sure that that was built into the formulas that are now in the funding manual."

She says COVID slowed the process, but she's pleased to now roll out the reforms.

"This is probably the most significant reform of transportation in Alberta Education that has occurred in decades, and so I'm really proud of the work of my department and the Student Transportation Task Force and all the schools [authorities], everyone who's come together to really inform the changes that we've seen here today. I'm very proud of everyone working together for the betterment of student transportation across this province."

RVS chair Lang says it's too early to determine if it will have an impact on RVS bus fees in the fall

"We were actually ready to start deliberating on transportation fees and services for next year as part of our budget development process, and we've pushed pause on that because our senior staff will need some time for more details to come in and just to look at a work plan on implementation and how much how close we can get to implementing the new service standards for next year."

Having a two-year window to phase in the new standards is beneficial.

"I think an important part of what they said is that their expectation of the new standard of service is to be phased in over the next two years. And while that is very welcome news that they want to increase the service standard provincially, it means a lot more riders will qualify for transportation everywhere, including at Rocky View schools, so it will take a while for us to work on that."

She says RVS may have an easier time implementing the changes because it already had higher standards in place.

"For over 10 years, we've been using our own walk limits of 1.5 km for elementary and two km for high school. So we're a little bit closer already to the new provincial guidelines of one km for elementary and two km for high school."

How that distance is calculated has been changed. Before it was determined by how the crow flies. 

"Parents were really unhappy with some of the safety issues that some of their children had to endure, whether it was walking along a path that was maybe dimly lit or having to cross a busy highway," explains Minister LaGrange. "Now we're actually calculating the distance by an actual drive route, the closest drive route."

With an additional 80,000 students becoming eligible for transportation, it means more buses and more bus drivers, who are currently in short supply.

"Part of the component of the funding model is to address school bus driver shortages and it's providing school authorities with more money so they can attract, retain and train bus drivers," says LaGrange. "So all of it will lend itself to a better, safer, more accessible program that is funding the actual cost of transportation. for our students."

A phased approach is being used to implement the new regulations, and it will not be brought into full force until Sept. 1, 2024. LaGrange says the funding will be available immediately for school divisions wanting to get an early start on implementing the changes.