An Onerahi mother has started a petition calling for the return of the school bus after Whangārei Intermediate children are being left on the side of the road upset and late for school.
Serena Tohu said her 11-year-old daughter suffers anxiety and is afraid to catch the public bus to Whangārei Intermediate from their nearest stop after repeatedly witnessing it leave behind her friends when it is at capacity.
Onerahi-based Whangārei Intermediate School (WIS) students have had no option but to use public transport CityLink since their Ritchies school bus service stopped in the middle of last year. The Ritchies service cost $3 a ride (or $25 for a weekly concession) and was taking them directly to and from school. They now walk from CityLink's drop-off at central city Rose St to school in the mornings and back to Rose St after school to catch the bus home.
The closest bus stop to Tohu is on Ross St, which is one of the last pick-up points at 8.05am when the bus is often at capacity, meaning it leaves students behind as it continues on to town. As a result, while many parents are opting to drive their children to school, Tohu is taking her daughter to the 7.40am pick-up point at Sorrento St to ensure she gets a seat.
Since catching the bus from Sorrento St, her daughter had continued to witness her friends being left on the side of the road at the Ross St stop.
"I felt bad because I remember her telling me that kids get turned away and I didn't believe her so I was forcing her to catch the close bus. It wasn't until I asked around some other parents and then made the post on the Onerahi Community Group Facebook page that I realised, wow, this is happening to a lot of kids and their parents have spoken up but nothing's being changed.
"My own daughter has anxiety now and is afraid to catch the bus from our closest bus stop because she doesn't want to be told that the bus is full and then be left alone on the side of the road open for predators. Only just recently there was a scare of a student being followed by a strange man and Onerahi kids deserve a school bus and to feel safe," said Tohu.
WIS deputy principal Paul Botica said Onerahi kids had travelled to school on funded buses since the school's establishment in 1957. However, in the mid 90s, some years after Raurimu Avenue School was recapitated to include intermediate-age children, the Ministry of Education (MOE) had withdrawn funding as there was a nearby intermediate-level school.
"The ministry bean counter/slash-and-burner went through and decided they no longer had to put on a bus."
A local bus company, then called Adams Travelines, came up with a private run funded by Onerahi families, which continued as the bus company was taken over by NZ Bus, then Ritchies Transport with the price increasing over the years.
"I don't think [Adams] ever profited, in fact, they pretty much ran the bus at cost."
Eventually with CityLink's one-way fare sitting at $1 in comparison to Ritchies' $3, about half the kids started "jumped ship" and Ritchies discontinued.
As a result, with no other option, the CityLink buses, run by Northland Regional Council (NRC) were overflowing, which NRC catered for by adding a second 3.15pm bus. However, in the morning, if buses were at capacity, about a dozen students were being left at their bus stops and told to wait for the next bus an hour later, making them late for school.
There were more than 130 Onerahi students enrolled at the school and Raurimu Avenue School has one classroom of 22 students comprising both Year 7 and Year 8.
"For the sake of a class of kids, every other kid's missing the bus," said Botica.
However, Raurimu Avenue School acting principal Moutini Bryers said they would welcome all 130 extra students to their school.
"We currently have the facilities for 130 students enrolling. This would be welcomed and is what we have being trying to do. Personally my thoughts on why those eligible for Year 7 and Year 8 learning from the Onerahi area enrol at Whangārei Intermediate is the variety of opportunities [such as] specialist music, technology and Rumaki, just to name a few."
It is believed Onerahi Primary School recently reapplied for recapitation but it was declined.
NRC confirmed they had contracted a second 3.15pm bus and were currently working with other operators to source another peak bus for the morning run.
"[This is] in progress as any bus company will have to source a vehicle and driver and this would be at significant cost with no guarantees of a long-term contract at this point," said a spokesperson.
Botica said: "To be fair, the NRC have really tried hard. Everyone was brilliant when we had to have social distancing; they put on more buses and they're trying the best they can but it's still not quite hitting the mark for all the students."
He said the MOE regulation regarding proximity was a misnomer.
"These ministry rules are designed for big cities like Auckland where they have a bus coming down the road every five minutes. That is the issue really."
MOE head of education infrastructure service Kim Shannon confirmed: "We may offer assistance if students attend their closest school, it's more than a certain distance from home and where there is no suitable public transport available, but the primary responsibility for getting students safely to and from school falls to their caregivers. We don't duplicate services where there are public transport options."
The CityLink buses have a capacity of between 62 adults and 74 passengers if all are intermediate students, including standing passengers. While NRC had received no noticeable increase in complaints, drivers had reported issues with children pushing the bell and not getting off.
Meanwhile, Botica said he had received "heaps" of complaints from concerned parents trying to get their kids to school on time and Tohu said vulnerable children were being exposed to "dodgy characters", with some under the influence of intoxicants.
Botica and Tohu had written to various organisations asking for help, including NRC, MOE, and local MPs, with no response. Having exhausted all options, Tohu - who said parents last year had also tried to rectify the situation - decided to start the petition. Within 24 hours it had attracted more than 620 signatures and was now sitting at over 900.
"It's incredibly frustrating. I don't want to be going to work worrying that my daughter may miss the bus because it's full. So we have been disrupting our usual routine in order to get her to the other side of Onerahi to catch the earlier bus. Our [10- to 13-year-olds] are children and they are not allowed to be left home alone, as is the law, so why would this be an appropriate option for them?
"All we want is a school bus and peace of mind that our kids can get to and from school safely without worry."
The petition can be found at: www.change.org under Whangārei Intermediate School bus for Onerahi Students.