Children with special needs have been left stranded this week after problems with the government-funded taxis that take them to and from school.
Auckland Co-operative Taxis has taken over the contract for parts of Auckland, and had promised a smooth transition for the children and their families.
But the Herald has been told of many drivers turning up late or not at all, leaving parents scrambling. School staff have picked up kids themselves while other students have had to stay home.
The Ministry of Education has called the failures "unacceptable" and says Co-op Taxis has not met its contractual obligations. It's also apologised to parents for "unnecessary uncertainty and distress".
The ministry provides Specialised School Transport Assistance (SESTA) to about 6500 children and young people with mobility or safety needs across the country.
Auckland Co-operative Taxis won a five-year contract to provide that service for Auckland central and south in March, starting this term.
Schools and parents were told in May that Co-op Taxis would make contact "shortly".
"I am assured that Auckland Co-operative Taxi Society Ltd understands its obligations under the contract, has a clear focus on safety, and is making appropriate preparations to ensure a seamless transition," a letter from the Ministry of Education said.
But many parents had still not heard from their drivers by the end of the school holidays - giving them no chance to meet the children and develop a relationship before packing them off to school.
Zelita Mahoney's 15-year-old son Dom has Down syndrome and is non-verbal. He's had the same taxi driver for the two years he's attended Marcellin College, with the old contract holder, Cross Country, providing an "amazing service".
When the contract changed, Dom's driver said she would apply for a job at Co-op and try to get on the same school run, which was a "huge weight off my shoulders", Mahoney said. But when she called Co-op Taxis last Wednesday she was told there was still no driver for her son.
"I was furious. I told [them] excuse me, you had two terms to sort this out."
It was only after she called the Ministry of Education and threatened to contact the media that she received a call from a new driver last Friday.
Mahoney teaches students with special needs. "I know how hard it is for these children in a transition to trust the other person. They need to feel there's a relationship," she said.
"Dom's not verbal, he's a friendly boy, not physically violent or anything but he needs to be handed over from an adult to another adult. I wasn't prepared to let him go to school on Monday with a driver he'd never met before."
One principal of a special school, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some students had been unable to attend all week as there was no taxi provided and their parents couldn't drive.
The Herald has also been told of non-verbal students being asked for directions, another student being dropped at the wrong school, and a taxi driver with four seats being assigned to pick up five students.
Mel Watson's daughter Paris Parker, 20, has Down syndrome and attends the MacLean Centre at Mt Roskill Grammar School. On Monday morning no driver showed up and Watson dropped Paris off herself; on arrival at 8.30am "it seemed like mayhem", Watson said. "They had no idea what was going on."
That afternoon the driver was so late Watson made a "mad dash" from Remuera to pick up Paris herself, while on Tuesday GPS showed Paris' taxi took a "crazy route" of more than 90 minutes each way. The ministry has now arranged a private taxi till the end of the week after Watson complained.
Watson said she had been met with "zero compassion" when she called Co-op Taxis to talk to the manager. "He [talked] to me like I'm chasing up my Uber Eats."
Parents at Oaklynn Special School in west Auckland were told by email last weekend that, despite the best efforts of school staff, many runs had still not been assigned and there may not be a taxi for their children on Monday.
One Oaklyn parent called the new taxi contract a "debacle" and said the Ministry of Education had made a "big blunder".
his daughter had still not been allocated a driver and he understood several other students had been ferried to school by senior staff.
A special needs education coordinator (SENCO) at a mainstream state school said only one of her students had met their driver before Monday morning. Her students' whānau were very concerned about the shift.
"Our gifted ākonga [learners], with the needs that they have, to build up that trust they need to know the person and meet them lots and lots and lots of times before they are comfortable. None of that happened."
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Kim Shannon said supplied were expected to deliver SESTA services to a high standard, and most did so.
"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.
"We are mindful our SESTA students are vulnerable and can find change unsettling. To ensure that the transition was to be as smooth as possible, we gave our SESTA provider clear guidance on how to prepare ahead of beginning their service delivery by recruiting dedicated drivers and meeting SESTA families.
"We are disappointed that our SESTA supplier has not met their contractual obligations."
A Ministry team was working with the taxi company in Auckland, with a dedicated call centre team taking complaints and ensuring they were resolved.
Anyone with SESTA-related complaints can email email@example.com or call 0800 287 272.
Co-op Taxis had not responded to requests for an interview.