Cloud hangs over several New Zealand school bus services, some to lose them altogether

There is a cloud hanging over several school bus services around New Zealand, with some communities set to lose theirs altogether. 

One of those is Pōkeno, south of Auckland, whose students rely on the school bus each day to get to Tuakau College 10km away. 

But angry parents have told Newshub the Ministry of Education is breaking its own rules in pulling funding for the service from April.  

For M-J Holroyd and almost 300 of his peers living in the satellite town of Pōkeno, getting to school is about to become a whole lot tougher. 

"We've got the Prime Minister telling us parents need to take ownership of getting their kids to school or making sure they're going to school. We want to, they are just not giving us the ability to do it," said his father Mike Holroyd.

The Ministry of Education has confirmed to Newshub school bus funding for the region will drop in April by $150,000 - and dedicated buses for Pōkeno students to Tuakau College will stop at the end of term one.

"At the request of the Franklin Transport Network Group (FTNG) network, we undertook a funding review," ministry spokesperson for school transport James Meffan said.

"While the number of students living in Pōkeno and attending Tuakau College has increased since the last review, because there is public transport available these students are ineligible for school transport assistance."

Parent Geoff Gummer said it was "crazy, very frustrating and quite scary for a lot of people".

To be eligible for school bus funding, a student must attend their nearest school, the Ministry of Education said. In the case of secondary schools, they must be 4.8km away or more (Tuakau is 10km from Pokeno) and there must be no suitable public transport alternative.  

"Based on their own criteria we don't have a suitable public transport option but they keep telling us we do," Mike Holroyd said.  

He said the only public bus runs once an hour and up to 300 Tuakau College students on the run will be vying for a seat alongside commuters.

"What are the other 250 kids going to do because they can’t get on that bus?" asked Holroyd.

The Ministry of Education said it carries out reviews of "directly resourced and daily school bus services routinely every year". 

It won't say how many other schools may be impacted in 2024 but said "reviews may result in lengthened routes, shortened routes, new routes or terminated routes, and reflect the changing locations of eligible students".

The Waikato Regional Council, which jointly funds the public bus that services the area with the NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi, has admitted to Newshub its once-an-hour service will be unable to get all children in Pōkeno to school on time.

Using the public bus too will cost up to $400 per child a year.

And the council has revealed the public bus service is only a trial - to be reviewed in May.

"Beyond May, well they're going to make kids walk 12km along a country road that's got no footpath," Gummer said. "What else can we do really?"

Late on Friday, a Waka Kotahi  spokesperson confirmed a Waikato Regional Council request to extend the trial bus service through to April 30, 2026 has been granted.

"NZTA has assessed this extension request and has recommended the extension is granted."

This will mean some certainty for Tuakau College students beyond April when their school bus funding ceases.

However, a regional council spokesperson has confirmed to Newshub it only has funding "to run the public bus as it currently is, there is no additional funding".

Gummer said that "did not solve the issue" because students will go from having four school buses on any given morning/afternoon to only one public bus servicing the route each hour.

Parent Amanda Holroyd said the reduced capacity beyond April could mean children are left on the side of the road.

"Also with petrol prices the way that they are and the current chaos that is pick and drop - many families will choose just not to send their kids to school and we'll see an increase in truancy."