Ritchies Transport is one of the main school transport providers in Northland and is looking for new recruits. Photo / Michael Cunningham
School is back and that means buses are on the road again, so what can parents in Te Tai Tokerau expect to see this year? Reporter Brodie Stone finds out.
It was a rocky year for school bus services across Te Tai Tokerau in 2022, with acute short staffing and months before spaces were filled.
Lack of qualified staff led to last-minute services being dropped, and Covid-19 further disrupted the year with parents in Ōnerahi reporting late services, leaving tamariki waiting on the roadside.
Ritchies Transport has now put the call out for qualified drivers, with recruiting under way over the next month in Whangārei.
The cost-of-living crisis has put further strain on families and bus services, with one Whangārei mother reporting an astronomical increase in fees, from $550 a term to $625.
She said she’s “struggling” to pay the full amount each term, and the drivers “get nasty” if the full amount isn’t paid, threatening to not let her 12-year-old on the bus if full fees aren’t paid.
The service provider, Leabourn, told the Northern Advocate that the increase in prices is down to road user charges and an increase in price from fuel suppliers.
For students to be eligible for school transport help, they must attend the closest school, and live past a certain distance.
For years one to eight that’s 3.2 kilometres, and for years nine to 13 it’s 4.8 km. For the Whangārei mother, her daughter going to the nearest school isn’t an option, as she was bullied there.
Tai Tokerau Principals’ Association president Pat Newman told the Northern Advocate that getting kids to school has been a rough ride at times for many parents.
“To be quite blunt, parents haven’t got the spare dollar,” he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that where a school can provide transport for their children there is a huge effect on attendance and the wellbeing of the kids,” he said.
As Principal of Hora Hora Primary School, Newman has ensured any students can get to school, providing a van for those who live further afield, or do not have transport to and from school.
“We’ve got the recognise that getting the kids to school is also an impediment,” he said.
Just last year, the Northland region was found to have the worst school attendance in the country, with just 34 per cent of students having regularly attended class in term one.
Covid-19 was the cause of that, but ripple effects, such as school transport, had an impact.
General manager of Ritchies Transport Northland, Tony Manga, told the Northern Advocate that Ritchies Transport have been speaking with the Ministry of Education and schools across Northland to come up with a plan for 2023.
“[We] have a much clearer picture now that the school year is under way of the numbers enrolled, and that’s crucial to our planning.”
He said Ritchies plan to do all they can do avoid last-minute cancellations or changes, “but that simply isn’t always possible”.
Drivers have been instructed to follow protocol and communicate with schools so that they may alert parents and students of changes.
Covid-19 is still around, but Manga said: “I think the community is doing well managing waves of Covid.”
He said handling it is now “business as usual” for passengers and drivers.
James Meffan, group manager of school transport for the Ministry of Education, told the Northern Advocate that efforts from transport service providers to avoid disruptions are appreciated.
“As the school year begins in 2023, our transport service providers report they expect to be able to deliver services, despite workforce pressures,” Meffan said.
The Ministry of Education is asking schools and bus operators to work together by communicating timetables, as well as route or bus stop changes in order to ensure information goes to families as quickly as possible.