Rural pupils wait on school bus verdict

LIBBY WILSON
Last updated 05:00 10/05/2014

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The conversations on the bus will be going round and round as uncertainty remains when 10 rural school routes around the Waikato will get the cut.

About 560 pupils from Hauraki, Matamata-Piako, Waikato and Waipa districts use the Ministry of Education-funded buses to get to state integrated schools in Hamilton.

Without them they will have to switch to the public network, which has raised concerns about cost and capacity.

"Our [School Transport Allowance] policy states that if there is suitable alternative public transport available our service stops and those kids have to transfer from our service to urban public transport services," said Ministry of Education director of school transport Keith Bolton, who was attending a workshop in Hamilton yesterday at the invitation of the Waikato Regional Council.

Those changes would affect hundreds of pupils travelling to Hamilton to attend state-integrated Catholic-run Sacred Heart Girls' College and St John's College, as well as the state-integrated Anglican-run Waikato Diocesan School for Girls.

The buses were funded under the school transport assistance policy, which covers pupils who may have trouble getting to school either because of distance or lack of public transport.

As the ministry said there was suitable alternatives for the 10 rural Waikato school bus routes they would ultimately have to be cut.

But there was no set end date and the ministry was still looking at options, Bolton said.

"It isn't just a black and white switch to turn off and on. There are a lot of issues that we're actually working through. It's just not a matter of policy, turn off, go."

Contracts for the buses expired at the end of this year but the ministry had rights of renewal which Bolton said could be an option in certain situations.

A draft recommendation on plans for the buses is expected to be ready by term two.

But the workshop raised clear concerns around how all the pupils would fit on the regional buses, and what it would cost both pupils and ratepayers.

Getting all the pupils on the regional buses was a "dilemma" for the council, Hamilton Public Transport Joint Committee co-chairwoman Lois Livingston said.

"Apparently we have about 322 students [of the 560 affected] who would not be catered for under our present system of buses coming in. So 322 children who would be left on the side of the road. Or commuters left on the side of the road."

But the ministry definition of suitable public transport is based on routes and timetables, not capacity.

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Livingston also outlined potential changes for pupils.

Ministry bus routes cost pupils nothing, but the regional council had tentatively calculated a daily fare of about $6 on the regional network. "The other thing is they may have to transfer. These may not be direct services any longer."

However if there is more than one transfer in the journey, the Ministry of Education does not consider the public transport "suitable".

Questions were also raised about the cost to ratepayers of accommodating pupils on public services.

Livingston said "very rough estimates" had been made but she was unwilling to divulge the amount.

Waikato Regional Council deputy chief executive Clare Crickett said this was the beginning of a conversation about how the ministry's policy would fit in with the regional council's regional public transport plan, which was under review.

"We have to assess the implications of that and how that policy can be accommodated in our plan."

SOME EXPLANATION

Ministry of Education definition of suitable public transport

Travels within 2.4 km of the student's home and of the nearest appropriate school

Timetable allows students to arrive at school before it starts and be picked up no later than one hour after it finishes

Does not require more than one transfer

Source: Ministry of Education 

- Waikato Times

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