By William Crooks
Local Journalism Initiative
In a significant mobilization effort, parents in Waterville are challenging the Centre de Service Scolaire de la Région-de-Sherbrooke (CSSRS)'s recent decision to suspend bus services along Astbury Road, citing major safety concerns for their children. The decision, effective from Oct. 30, has sparked widespread unease and calls for action within the community.
Lucie Massinon, a local parent, expressed bewilderment over the suspension, noting the longstanding history of reliable school transportation on Astbury Road since the 1990s. She pointed out the improved condition of public roads today compared to twenty years ago, labeling the CSSRS's decision as "completely illogical".
The alternative route proposed by the CSSRS is deemed far less safe. It features challenges such as reduced visibility due to a sharp curve, frequent wildlife crossings, ice risks from a nearby hydraulic dam, persistent fog, and heavy, high-speed traffic of trucks and cars. These conditions represent a "real nightmare" for parents concerned about the safety of their children.
Moreover, the designated boarding point for the bus service contravenes CSSRS policy CSRS-POL-2012-02, which advocates for reasonable walking distances to bus stops. The property of one of the families lies over 600 meters from the nearest stop, exceeding the policy's limit and thereby challenging its compliance.
Adding to the urgency, an incident on Nov. 1 highlighted systemic issues within the school's organization. A child from Astbury Road was mistakenly sent home by bus, despite being scheduled to stay at school, resulting in the child being left alone over 600 meters from home, without sidewalks or safe passage.
This situation at Astbury Road is not isolated but reflects a broader issue affecting rural school transportation. In response, Waterville parents have garnered support from the city of Waterville and are reaching out to other rural municipalities within the CSSRS territory, urging them to adopt similar resolutions to support the cause.
Massinon emphasized the arbitrary nature of the CSSRS's decision, challenging the validity of the reasons given for the suspension of the bus service. The parents are adamant in their fight, asserting that school transportation is a fundamental right and rejecting the notion of being treated as second-class citizens. They remain hopeful that the CSSRS will revisit and amend its decision, acknowledging the genuine concerns of the families affected.
“All we know is that the bus used to pass on Astbury Road for 30 years and now they say it is not safe anymore,” said David Blanchette, parent representative. A lot of other municipalities are concerned about the situation, he added.
In Hatley, he continued, they are planning on making a private road public and may face the same issue, but they will not be able to point to a previous 30 years of problem-free service.
“Basically, what they are saying is dirt roads are not safe anymore,” Blanchette reiterated, but it is important that those in the country have the same services as those in the towns.
It was Blanchette’s 5-year-old child that was accidentally left by the side of route 143 a few weeks ago. “This is unacceptable. It can’t happen.”
The official overseeing school bus transportation in the region in question informed the CSSRS that the school bus driver tasked with navigating Astbury Road claimed it would be a “security risk in winter conditions”, said Donald Landry, General Secretary of the CSSRS. The driver indicated that the turns, inclines, and width of the road were all dangerous, especially in icy conditions and with the possibility of encountering oncoming traffic.
The CSSRS conducted their own preliminary investigation and found there was indeed a potentially unacceptable level of risk in navigating the road. Thus, they decided to accept, for the moment, the bus driver’s assessment, and suspended service on Astbury Road until the end of the spring. The bus will return to its normal service at the beginning of May.
During the winter season, the children affected will have to catch their bus on the side of route 143, but the Ministry of Transport will install panels on the side of the route indicating there is a new bus stop there.
To fully verify that they have made the correct decision, the CSSRS has commissioned an official study to assess whether the road presents a “real risk” for school buses during the winter season and are waiting for the results.
Waterville Mayor’s position
“We keep our roads as good as we can,” said Waterville Mayor Nathalie Dupuis, and Astbury Road has not been changed for years besides one section of it being redone. The repairs did not change the road’s configuration, she insisted. Nothing concerns them about the quality of the road.
Snow removal on the road is done every year and nothing has happened to show the road is particularly dangerous in the winter, Dupuis explained. She doesn’t think a snowplow would be any less difficult to drive on the road than a school bus if there were a problem.
Dupuis does not think a blanket stoppage for school bus service on the road during the winter makes sense; if conditions happen to be particularly bad on any individual day, a decision should then be made. “Normally, everything is okay all the time.”
She does not understand the CSSRS’ reaction and does not think it realizes how dangerous the current situation is for the young children that must be collected on the side of route 143. There is not much traffic on Astbury Road, but a lot on the 143, she insisted, especially in the morning and at the end of the day when the children are to be picked up and dropped off. Dupuis claims the new stop was checked for its risks by the CSSRS on Oct. 9, Thanksgiving Day, which did not accurately represent the route’s usual conditions.
Dupuis noted that the usual way to prove the route was too dangerous to drive, through the Commission des Normes, de l’Équité, de la Santé et de la Sécurité du Travail (CNESST), was not followed, and that the CSSRS’ decision was made “too easily”.
The Town of Waterville has sent a resolution to the CSSRS and other municipalities that may be impacted by the issue, detailing why the CSSRS should reconsider its decision.