School Bussing “New Style” Progresses

The first round of a series of weekly meetings between the St. Maarten School Bus Owners Association (SSBOA) and the Government of Sint Maarten spearheaded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (MECYS) ended with a number of conclusions, agreements and an enhanced relationship between the two entities.
School bus transportation has had the attention of the Ministry for the last three years as matters related to improved safety of students and efficiency and increased costs resulted in a Council of Minister’s decision in 2017 to introduce adjusted measures to streamline services. The assignment was given to the Ministries of MECYS and Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) to prepare and present adjusted policies. The Department of Education has advanced in its preparations resulting in 2017 with a draft national decree vetted by Legal Affairs.
In January 2018 shortly after entering office Minister Jorien Wuite and members of her cabinet held an introductory meeting with representatives of the SSBOA. In that meeting various topics were discussed and the SSBOA expressed a number of concerns to the Minister. These concerns centered mainly around the areas of safety and transportation, physical damage to property of bus owners and a stagnant fee structure that had been in place and in need of updating for a number of years.
In response, Minister Wuite scheduled a series of meetings with the Association alongside representatives of the Department of Education, the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Traffic and Telecommunication (TEATT) and the Police Department of Sint Maarten, with the intention to intensify consultations for improved school bussing and student safety on Sint Maarten. “There have been attempts in the past to strengthen the relationship between the Association and this Ministry. For a variety of reasons, the relationship never progressed. One of the goals that I wanted to accomplish, besides recovery and resilience efforts of the Ministry, was to be able to work along with the school bus owners to find sustainable and long-lasting solutions” the Minister expressed.
One of the meetings highlighted the progress to date in the advancement of the draft national decree. This decree highlights government’s role to pupils subject to compulsory education that cannot reasonably go to school without the support of government. The decree regulates responsibilities of parents, mode of payments, application and special transportation. All agreed that the preparation, implementation date and impact require further review due to the impact of Irma and that the draft legislation of the Ministry of TEATT needs to advance in order to regulate matters of safety, inspection, insurance, rates and routes.
One concern of the school bus operators had to do with matters of traffic and road safety. A representative of the Police Department of St. Maarten was invited to meet with the Association and the Department of Education and consensus and agreements were established whereby three student loading zones for busses were established. The first zone is proposed to be right before the Freedom Fighters round-about (going to Sucker Garden) as opposed to the intersection by Old SZV; another student loading zone in the opposite direction, across from Old SZV (going to the Police Station) will be established and a third loading zone for Oranje School at the intersection by G.E.B.E. was identified by the stakeholders. It was acknowledged that these zones should minimize hindrance to the flow of traffic and the Police Department has agreed that no fines shall be given to buses parked in these zones.
It was also decided that for the purpose of ensuring students’ safety (although not formally a traffic rule) school buses will be allowed to diagonally block oncoming traffic when students are crossing the road. Bus operators were also encouraged by the Police Department to share information on inappropriate behavior on the bus or any other pertinent information with the Police Department.
Behavior management on the bus was another major concern identified by the Association as recurring fights and vandalism make student safety and safe transportation more challenging. To address this concern the Ministry formed a sub-committee with members of the Association and Police Department who will create a marketing and information awareness campaign aimed at informing parents, students and the general public of appropriate behavior inside and in the vicinity of school busses. As part of the campaign a new School Bus Owners Association logo was designed, and a series of jingles and posters are being worked on to be rolled out over the summer and at the start of the new school year.
One of the final major grievances identified by the Association was in relation to a freeze in tariffs that has been in place for some time. The Association contends that these fees had never been adjusted to accommodate the rise in the cost of living since the 80’s and along with recent budget cuts and physical damages caused by Hurricane Irma, this has created added financial difficulties for bus operators. Recognizing the complexity of this, the Minister invited representatives from the Ministry TEATT to work alongside the MECYS Ministry and the Association to take a look at possible solutions as the school bus routes are established by the TEATT Ministry. Several proposals were tabled for discussion and investigation, one of which included the Association taking on more responsibility and control of the bussing system themselves. As a result of that consultation, the design of a new bus service system that would ensure efficiency, increased safety for students and fairness for operators was presented for consideration.
“I am in support of such an important decision to further renew our school bus transportation services with the introduction of the National Decree with an introduction date in the future. The Association has held meetings with their members who also support this direction and this should be applauded”. Minister Wuite expressed. “The SSBOA is currently in the process to advance with a plan and proposal to consider introduction of school bussing ‘new style’ for the school year 2018/2019.
The St. Maarten School Bus Owners Association was established in November 1981 with over 36 years of experience, the association’s objectives have continued to include the protection of the interest of school bus drivers as well as the provision of safe and efficient student transportation on Sint Maarten. The SSBOA currently has a membership of over 30 bus operators who provide regular and extracurricular school bus service to students attending primary and secondary schools and living in all districts on Sint Maarten.