School Bus Safety in Port Stephens
The wheels on the school bus may go round and round, but it is the parents of Port Stephens whose heads have been left spinning by the poor quality school bus service delivered by the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Andrew Constance. How difficult can it be for this Minister to ensure that school buses turn up, that they have enough seats for the number of students they are collecting, and that they get to school safely? This is not a big ask from local parents. All they want is a bus that picks up their children before school and drops them home safely in the afternoon. But even this simple task is beyond Minister Constance, as most tasks are. It seems he cannot even run a ferry-naming poll, let alone a public transport network.
I have been contacted by scores of parents from Medowie and the Tilligerry Peninsula whose children have been left behind at school in the afternoon because overflowing school buses did not have room to take them. These students were forced to wait more than an hour for a public bus to get to their home suburb, only then to have to walk across the suburb to get home. And that is before we get to the issue of students being forced to stand as the buses travel on roads with speed limits of up to 100 kilometres an hour past the scene of previous bus accidents, because this Government has failed to implement the recommendations of the 2012 School Bus Safety Community Advisory Committee inquiry into rural and regional school bus safety. Put simply, this is not good enough.
Adding to the frustration for parents is that their experiences this year are not new. This has become an annual event in Medowie and on the Tilligerry Peninsula. After discussion with parents, teachers and the Minister's office, the cause has become clear. A school's enrolment is calculated in February each year as part of a statewide census. The number of school buses needed for an area is then calculated on this enrolment information. As students return to school in January, the number of school buses is still being calculated on last year's enrolment numbers. In a growing area like Medowie, and with growing enrolments at Irrawang High School and Hunter River High School in Raymond Terrace, it is clear that this method is every year leaving more students to cram onto the same number of buses, or be left behind.
I understand schools tried to advise bus companies that student numbers were increasing, but the bus companies' contract with the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure means they are only paid for the official number of students. No private company is going to spend more to add a bus if they are not being paid for it. There are around 1,000 students bussed out of Medowie and the surrounding areas each day to secondary schools across the region. This enormous logistical exercise is only forced on local students because this Government has failed to support the community's longstanding call for a public high school in Medowie. Many families will be relieved when the next Labor government fixes this after the next election.
The enormous number of students bussed out of Medowie and the peninsula each day is concerning, but it is the individual stories that reveal the truth behind these experiences. One mother, Karina, called my office to share her daughter's story. On her daughter's second day at high school she was told that there was not enough room on the school bus to take her home in the afternoon. She was told to catch a public bus and to make her own way home. Karina's daughter had never caught that public bus before and one can only imagine the distress of a year 7 student, in the first week of school, being told to catch a different bus on a different route home.
Another Medowie parent, Suzanne, called my office and expressed concern about this situation. Her two girls were some of the lucky ones who managed to get a place on the bus while others were left behind, but this is of no comfort to parents who have no confidence that tomorrow it will not be their children left stranded and told to make their own way home. We had the absurd situation in the first week of school of 30 children from one of the high schools not being able to get on the bus at the end of the school day.
Another parent, Stephen, contacted my office about the experience of his twin boys, who started year 7 this year. These boys travel from the Tilligerry Peninsula to Raymond Terrace. It is a trip that takes about half an hour by car and a lot longer by bus, but Stephen's boys often spend the entire trip standing as the bus travels on a road with speed limits up to 90 kilometres an hour.
In fact, last year Roads and Maritime Services [RMS] reduced the speed limit along this road because of the high number of crashes. This road is so dangerous that RMS had to lower the speed limit, but this Government has no problem with children standing on buses as they go along the same road. I offer a simple solution to these problems: build a public high school in Medowie. This Government said in 2011 that it was going to start planning a new school in 2011, but it has done nothing since. If the Government will not build a school, surely it can at least ensure that our kids get to and from school safely.