Serious questions are being raised as to how the Ministry of Education allowed a bus company to compromise the safety and welfare of disabled children in Ashburton.
A crisis meeting was held at Ashburton College recently between the college, a parent representative, CCS Disability Action Group and bus company Ritchies Bus and Coach after concerns arose about the safety and reliability of the Ritchies bus which was transporting special needs pupils to Ashburton College and Hampstead School.
As part of a nationwide tender process, the Ministry of Education awarded Ritchies the tender to transport about 18 disabled Ashburton pupils to and from school this year.
The contract was taken away from a local taxi company.
Concerns were roused by parents of the special needs pupils and Ashburton college after finding out the bus did not have certified wheelchair restraints, pupils were arriving late to school, being picked up early from class and were being dropped off 300-400 metres away from their classroom.
It also emerged that a pupil who lived within 2km from Ashburton College spent an hour and 20 minutes on the bus.
CCS Disability Action Group believes up to 400 disabled pupils have been affected nationally by the change-over in transport providers.
Parent representative Mark Somerville, who has a disabled son attending Ashburton College, believed the pupils' welfare was completely ignored.
He said Ritchies were not aware of the processes they needed to go through to have a compliant bus.
"They (the ministry) were not looking out for the welfare of our kids . . . from what I can see it was a cost-saving exercise," he said.
"They have let down these kids in a big way."
Ritchies, who did not want to comment, responded immediately to the concerns following the crisis meeting two weeks ago.
They installed certified wheelchair restraints, altered timetables so pupils arrived at school on time and ensured pupils were not sitting on the bus for more than an hour.
However, the special needs pupils are still being dropped off hundreds of metres away from their classroom because the bus is too big to access the campus.
Ashburton College deputy principal Grant Congdon also questioned the tendering process, saying schools were not consulted.
"When the outcome is going to directly influence what's happening on the ground, people making decisions about contracts need to know real specifics about the individual students so the provider is able to meet the needs of those students, and I don't think that step was done as well," Mr Congdon said.
Ministry of Education group resources manager John Clark said the ministry put the vehicles through "quality requirements safety checks", before considering the price offered by the Ritchies and other bus companies.
He said restraints would have been up to standard and the bus was only required to drop the pupils at the gate.
He was "glad" to hear a timetable was sorted out to avoid pupils being on the bus for more than the maximum time of one hour.
However, he was saddened to hear questions over the ministry's motives.
"I'm really disappointed people would say that, safety is the first consideration, not just of special need students but other students as well," Mr Clark said.
He said it would be an impossible task to consult with more than 2000 schools throughout the country.
Mr Congdon said Ritchies were still in the process of improving the service, hoping to drop the pupils closer to the school gate in the near future.