More than 7000 Tauranga students would be forced to pay for public transport under an Education Ministry proposal to scrap some school bus routes.
Under the plan, families would have to pay up to $2 per student for daily bus rides to and from school instead of having trips paid for by the ministry.
The ministry has told Environment Bay of Plenty it is considering withdrawing its $2.9 million annual funding for up to 65 school routes within the city limits and the students will have to use the scheduled Bay Hopper bus service.
Fast-growing Tauranga is seen by the ministry as a major metropolitan area that has a public transport system and cutting its funding of urban school bus services is consistent with national policy.
Instead, the ministry wants to concentrate on rural bus services and plug gaps in other areas where students find it difficult to get to school.
This assistance already costs $125 million a year nationwide.
The ministry wants to work closely with Environment BOP to ensure there is a smooth transition from the school bus services to public transport in Tauranga. A joint officials group will be established.
Speaking at Environment BOP's regional development committee meeting, Ministry of Education consultant Alan Wilcox said: "A hasty exit is not what we are about; we want to work together to get the right answers.
"The management of school buses in the city is difficult with different network groups and there are a large number of overlapping routes. We have to consider the use of capital resources and get value for money," he said.
Mr Wilcox expected the ministry funding could be withdrawn over a period of five years.
He told the Environment BOP councillors that a similar exercise had been carried out in parts of Canterbury and the students paid a daily bus charge of $1.90 a day, regardless of how far they had to travel.
Athole Herbert, chairman of the regional development committee, said each parent would have to pay $10 a week to get their child to school. If they had three children, they would be paying $30 a week and "that's a big burden on young families".
Tauranga Boys' College principal Graham Young said the city had its own particular issues and cutting ministry-funded bus services was not easy.
He said Tauranga had geographical barriers, with the harbour and peninsulas, and it was difficult to apply the hard and fast rules of transporting students to schools.
The city didn't have a public bus service until five years ago and the school routes were established before the new arterial roads were built, said Mr Young. ``Because of the growth in Papamoa, it's a nightmare to transport those kids to school. Some also have to travel across the city from Welcome Bay to Otumoetai.
"Two-thirds of our students rely on the bus services; get rid of that system and we won't have students coming to the boys' college.
"The ministry funding is a big annual bill but I believe it is efficiently managed by the school transport committees here," he said.
Of the 65 school bus routes in Tauranga, 27 of them are funded directly by the Ministry of Education _ and these contracts expire on December 31 _ although they can be rolled over.
The Tauranga and Mount Maunganui network groups (representing the primary, intermediate and secondary schools) receive bulk funding that is used to operate the other bus routes.
They contract private operators such as Bayline Group and Bethlehem Coaches, and three of the contracts expire at the end of the year and another 32 run out at the end of 2008.
At present, 7188 eligible and 570 ineligible students are carried on these routes _ making up 13 per cent of the 65,000 students who take a bus to school each day throughout the country.
Students under 10 years old are eligible to use a ministry-funded bus service if they live more than 3.2km from the nearest appropriate school and students over the age of 10 must live more than 4.8km away.
They cannot use a school bus if a public transport service travels within 2.4km of the students' homes and nearest schools, has an appropriate timetable and does not require a student to change buses more than once on a journey.
An Environment BOP survey has shown that 84 per cent of Tauranga's population lives within 400m of a bus route _ therefore it was unlikely that many of the students met the ministry criteria.
Tony Lugg, managing director of Bayline, said "we will do what we have to do and get the kids to school but someone has to pay for it".
He said his company's buses were already carrying 4000 students to schools _ the difference is that it may not be a free ride.
Mr Lugg said it would take Bayline two years to phase in a new public transport system incorporating the old school routes.
"We wouldn't need extra buses but we would have to increase the frequencies during the peak times. We can handle anything if people want us to do it," he said.
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