More than 100 students with special needs had issues getting to or from school last week after their government-funded transport service switched to a new taxi company.
Taxis have been turning up without necessary safety equipment, such as harnesses, and some parents have taken the past week off work because nobody was available to transport their kids to school.
Several parents have told the Herald their children were distraught because their routines had been disrupted and they no longer knew their drivers.
The Herald has been told of a child being dropped at school at 11am, while other students have been unable to attend school at all since Auckland Cooperative Taxi Society took over the service last Monday.
The Ministry of Education, which funds the Specialised School Transport Assistance (SESTA) service, says it is working with the taxi company to remedy any problems.
Co-op Taxis said under its contract with the ministry it was unable to comment publicly.
In March this year Auckland Co-operative Taxi Society won two Ministry of Education contracts to take students with special needs to and from school in central and south Auckland - 735 students in all.
Co-op Taxis took over those clusters from former providers Go Bus and Cross Country Rentals. Co-op has already held the contracts for east and west Auckland since 2013.
Tenders were judged on 40 per cent cost, and 60 per cent quality, according to a ministry spokesperson, with Co-op Taxis ranked highest overall.
Students and their families were promised a smooth transition to the new service.
But by the end of the first day the complaints were already rolling in. The ministry sent out letters to parents apologising for "any unnecessary uncertainty and distress", and set up a dedicated team working with the taxi company to sort out the issues.
As of 9am on Friday the ministry's team had been contacted by schools or caregivers of 101 students who had issues, a statement from ministry deputy secretary Kim Shannon said.
That didn't include complaints Co-op Taxis had received directly.
"It is unacceptable to us that some of our most vulnerable students who rely on SESTA to access their education have faced disruption this week, and we want to get them back to school, safely and ready to learn as soon as possible," Shannon said.
Where families or schools had contacted the ministry directly, they were being followed up so that transport arrangements would be in place for the second week of term, which starts today.
Ministry faced similar SESTA issues in 2013
In 2013 there were widespread issues with SESTA services.
Many of the complaints related to services provided by Alert Taxi Group, which took over several clusters and then subcontracted out to other taxi companies. Issues included students being picked up late or not at all, while many parents raised concerns about the disruption to their childrens' lives.
Auckland Co-op Taxis' south Auckland contract was also torn up that year after the Ministry and Co-op agreed the level of service was "not being provided to the level expected". However, it retained its contracts for west and east Auckland.
The Herald asked the Ministry of Education whether any concerns had been raised about Co-op Taxis' previous performance and, if so, why they were still chosen as the SESTA provider.
In response James Meffan, group manager for school transport, said in a statement that the focus had always been on making sure all impacted ākonga (learners) were safely transported to and from school.
"Prior to awarding this contract, we undertook additional due diligence on driver availability for the region and sought assurances from Auckland Co-Operative Taxis to supply dedicated drivers and meet with ākonga and their parents or caregivers, before providing any service," he said.
"They assured us that this work had been completed but these reassurances were not met."
Update: Students across Auckland affected by taxi switch
By midday on Monday, the number of students affected had risen to 156, according to acting head of the Ministry's education infrastructure service Sharyn Pilbrow.
Those problems were spread across Auckland, not just the two new contract areas.
"The range of complaints include students not having a permanent driver assigned, students not being picked up and taxis not arriving at the correct time or location."
The figure equates to 12 per cent of the total 1340 SESTA students that Co-op Taxis serves in Auckland. It includes students whose issues have now been resolved but may not include complaints received directly by the taxi company.
The Herald has asked whether part of the problem could be incorrect information being provided to the taxi company by the Ministry.
Pilbrow said one of the requirements in Co-op Taxis' new contract was that the company had to provide a dedicated driver for each student, and they had to meet with the schools and families to confirm things like pickup details before the start of Term 3.
That would help "ensure a smooth transition, including accounting for any undocumented arrangements between families and their previous SESTA provider".
"Despite receiving assurances from ACTS that they were doing this, we subsequently discovered that this hasn't always happened. The Ministry and ACTS are working hard to fix these issues."
• This story has been updated on August 3 to reflect the number of additional complaints that were received by Monday as well as further comment from the Ministry of Education.