Sunday, November 28

Principal Says Ministry Defaulted on Queenstown School Bus Promise

The principal of an elementary school is calling on the Ministry of Education for breaking a promise to prevent children from riding school buses in Queenstown Lakes.

School boy, child, kid, getting on the bus.

Photo: 123RF

Officials agreed in 2018 to end the practice of standing on buses due to pressure from local schools amid concerns about the safety of children while traveling on roads with open speed limits.

The ministry has since confirmed that students were allowed to stand on school buses, but operators would have to regularly report any standing passengers after the new contracts take effect in January.

It has prompted the mayor of the Queenstown Lakes district, Jim Boult, to contact the prime minister and other government ministers calling for an end to the practice, saying it is inherently unsafe and irresponsible protocol.

Hāwea Flat School principal Tania Pringle said officials had backtracked on their promise.

His elementary school did not allow practice on its buses due to safety concerns for students traveling on roads with speed limits of up to 100 kilometers per hour.

“They are more rural roads, they are not as well prepared as the big state highways like State Highway 1. There are pieces that are gravel and have uneven curvature and in the winter we obviously have a significant amount of ice.”

The practice was happening on other local school buses, he said.

“There are a lot of five, six, seven-year-olds. Those kids who are sitting down can’t touch the ground when they sit properly in the seats. If you put three of them in a seat, they struggle to … put their backs against the backrest. Pringle said.

“There are no armrests to hold them, so it’s easy to hang over the aisle. If the bus stopped suddenly, there are very few things that would really stop them from flying off, so if the kids were standing it would be even worse.”

His school has three buses that offer 135 seats.

But 210 students, 70 percent of the school’s roster, were eligible for the school bus.

“We are going through a period of sustained growth for our school, so on a regular basis we have to review what supply of buses we have.”

He approached the Ministry of Education to request another bus, but said they told him to provide one because he could not prove that students regularly stood on buses even though there could be three children in one seat.

To reach that threshold, the bus would have to be filled to the maximum load capacity: about 65 children sitting and 10 standing.

“We are not willing to do that and we are not willing to allow our children to do it because that does not happen on a daily basis, the Ministry of Education has said that we do not need more bus supplies and they are not willing to review it.”

Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult was excited about the problem that he thought had been solved.

Jim Boult, Mayor of the Queenstown Lakes District

Jim Boult, Mayor of the Queenstown Lakes District.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

It has been more than three years since Waka Kotahi informed him that the Secretary of Education had decided to stop the practice and the Ministry of Education was working on that directive at an expected cost of around $ 20 million a year.

He has sent a letter to the Prime Minister and other ministers, saying he was disappointed and shocked when schools informed him that a significant number of children would stand in the hallways under the new school bus tendering arrangements.

It’s time to act on an issue that has long put tamariki at risk unnecessarily, he said.

“We live in an area with difficult road conditions, especially during the long winter months. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could contemplate allowing children to stand on buses, let alone on open roads. forgiven. “

He has been in correspondence with Waka Kotahi on the issue since 2018, but said recently several government departments have been spinning him while trying to stop the practice.

The most recent correspondence with Waka Kotahi included the advice that while school buses were involved in 529 crashes between February 2000 and February 2020, no student had been killed.

“I’m sure a five-year-old on a school bus traveling down country roads at 90 km per hour would feel much safer knowing they have a good chance of survival if their bus is one of the 26 average accidents per year.” , Boult. he said in the letter.

He also urged the government to include seat belts on school buses.

“As parents and as ministers responsible for our children and their safety, I implore you to act. While, fortunately, no child has died in these 529 crashes, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to prevent a child from falling? be the first Are we not responsible for making sure they can travel to school every day safe from the possibility of harm and injury? “

New contracts

Education Ministry infrastructure and digital leader Scott Evans said the new contracts would take effect next January after asking bidders to confirm that they could provide enough seats to serve the expected number of eligible students.

The contracts were due to expire at the end of last year but were extended by a year to allow time to update the procurement process and make sure there were opportunities for smaller regional suppliers, he said.

“Under new contracts coming into effect in January 2022, providers can carry standing passengers to allow a necessary degree of operational flexibility to handle fluctuating demand and ensure that no eligible students are left behind,” Evans said.

“Operators will be required to regularly report any foot passengers so that we can monitor and manage the situation if the number of students using school bus services increases above expectations.

“Waka Kotahi sets safety standards for school buses that the Ministry of Education and its transportation service providers must follow. If Waka Kotahi’s guidance on passengers riding school buses changes, the Ministry will respond accordingly.” .

The Te Manatū Waka Ministry of Transportation noted concerns around students found on school buses.

His mobility and safety team manager Robert Anderson said that road safety statistics show that buses are the safest mode of road transport in New Zealand.

“We believe that transportation regulation is unlikely to be the most effective way to address safety concerns about children riding school buses,” he said.

“The Ministry of Education may establish requirements and expectations when purchasing school transportation services, including consideration of the capacity of its services and the number of eligible students on each school bus route.”

Waka Kotahi referred the questions to the Ministry of Education, as it had contractual agreements with the bus operators.

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