Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Taxi switch strands pupils

Special needs students at mercy of new ministry tendering process for transport.

Franky Lewis and her son Keegan, who is to attend Northcote College this year.  Photo / Chris Gorman
Franky Lewis and her son Keegan, who is to attend Northcote College this year. Photo / Chris Gorman

Special needs students have been stood up with no ride to and from school after a change in the taxi company used by the Government.

The issues have been widespread and have affected students from primary to secondary school age. Some schools say the situation has improved, but others are still experiencing significant problems.

Taxis to and from school for some special needs students are funded by the Ministry of Education. At the end of last year, Alert Taxi Group won the tender for central Auckland, North Shore, Tauranga and Whangarei, beating previous provider Auckland Co-Op Taxis.

Alert has subcontracted out many of the school jobs to other taxi companies. Many taxis have arrived late or not at all since the start of the school year.

Staff from Mt Roskill Grammar School's MacLean Centre were forced to drive two students home hours after school after a taxi no-show. Teachers calling to find out about taxis have been put on hold for 30 minutes before being disconnected.

"Our kids need relationships with their taxi drivers. We, as staff, are responsible for children who are both challenged and vulnerable - we need relationships with taxi drivers as well," said Janice Whitaker-Hall, head of department at the centre. "I don't know anything about the decision-making around the tendering. I think that's a question to be asked ... around the decision to change completely a system that was working quite effectively."

Marise Davies, mother of 14-year-old Harrison, said taxis were still arriving late to take her son to and from the centre.

Mrs Davies, who is an occupational therapist at the Auckland Physical Disability Service, said that had created major stress. Drivers did not apologise, or show any inclination to form a relationship with Harrison.

"The concern is that kids like my son don't have the cognitive ability to give you a report when they get home about where they have been ... we just trust. There's a massive amount of trust.

"It's not like you and I jumping into a taxi on a Friday night and getting a lift home from a restaurant."

She said that while changing the tender might have saved money, it cut off crucial relationships.

"I used to have a boy who would get [out of] the taxi in the afternoon, and he would be singing and laughing. They had the most gorgeous relationship. Now he goes off in the taxi and he's very quiet, he doesn't say anything. There's no effort to get to know the kids."

The MacLean Centre, and the Endeavour Centre at neighbouring Mt Roskill Primary School, last week met Budget and South Auckland Taxis. Alert declined to attend.

Ms Whitaker-Hall said she was confident the worst of the problems were over, but was frustrated Alert still had not provided her with a direct contact person.

Ministry group manager of resourcing John Clark said the tender process resulted in 32 of 60 geographical "clusters" having new contractors.

Special education transport assistance was provided to more than 4000 students, and the ministry has been advised problems affected less than 10 per cent of those students.

Blomfield School and Wairau Valley School had contacted the ministry with complaints about Alert Taxis. The Herald has also confirmedtaxi issues at Sommerville School. Problems at Carlson School have been largely sorted after crisis meetings with Alert.

Mr Clark accepted it could take time to build new relationships after change, but the ministry was required to tender. "The ministry has contracted an external agency to review the tender process and has been advised that the tender was compliant."

Student stuck at home without a ride

After a five-year wait, Keegan Lewis has finally found a place at his preferred North Shore school.

But the 16-year-old, who has severe cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy, has been stuck at home while his Northcote College classmates begin the new school year.

Keegan's mother, Franky Lewis, said that although his place at Northcote had been confirmed by the Ministry of Education, he was still waiting for his application for daily transport to be cleared.

"The direction was authorised on February 1, and since then wehave been waiting for transportto follow through."

Mrs Lewis said she was told by a ministry staff member that the application was delayed because there was a cost issue - despite him having used taxis for similar distances in the past.

"Keegan has been receiving transport for 12 years. He was even transported from here [Whangaparaoa] to Kelston School when he was 5 or 6."

Keegan had attended Wairau Valley School, but Mrs Lewis said he had always wanted to attend a mainstream school.

"He is very strong-willed, and he wants to go to mainstream college ... he talks a lot. And he just craves social contact."

With Keegan increasingly upset at home, she rose at 5am yesterday to take him to school herself, but she is desperate for the transport to come through in the next couple of days.

"It will be really hard for me to keep up, because we don't have staff at home to get him ready, and some nights I work nightshifts. So it's not something I can do for even a week."

Ministry group manager of resourcing John Clark said Keegan's situation was complex and staff were investigating further.

- NZ Herald

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