Principal's bus stop concerns led to MoE staff's 'disappointing' actions

11:37 am on 9 November 2020

Ministry of Education staff who subverted communications with a school principal after he raised safety concerns about a proposed bus stop, acted "inappropriately" and their behaviour is "extremely disappointing," the Ministry says.

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Emails and a phone call to a principal when he was not at school were used to give the appearance of trying to get in touch with him, while actually trying to avoid him, the Ministry of Education says. Photo: kzenon/123RF

Emails obtained under the Official Information Act show the staff pretended to get in touch with Elsthorpe School principal Sandy Crawford, who had repeatedly invited the Ministry to a public meeting on 9 October, 2019 to explain their proposal to cut the bus service and install a new stop, without success.

Elsthorpe School BOT Chairperson Lucie Gilbertson, principal Sandy Crawford, Elsthorpe resident Hugh Pearse and Tukituki MP Lawrence Yule.

From left: Elsthorpe School BOT chairperson Lucie Gilbertson, principal Sandy Crawford, Elsthorpe resident Hugh Pearse and former Tukituki MP Lawrence Yule at the meeting in October 2019. Photo: Anusha Bradley

In the days leading up to the meeting, the Ministry's national operations manager of transport Steve Guiney wrote to regional transport advisor Janice Kennerley and another official Lucy Jackson asking Kennerley to give the appearance of trying to get in touch with Crawford about the meeting, while actually trying to avoid him.

"Can you head off a requirement to participate in a public meeting (which will be filled with angry parents of ineligible children) and meet with the principal instead," Guiney wrote.

He then asked his staff member to prove they had attempted to make genuine attempts to talk to Crawford.

"You must try to reach the Principal/Board ... show me a trail of attempts to talk via official means with this principal. I am not at all in favour of you or anyone fronting to discuss policy with people who are ineligible to receive the benefits of at policy," he wrote.

Kennerley responded she had done just that, by calling Crawford when she knew he was not there.

"As below, I did try Elsthorpe School at 2.13pm but no reply. As per Lucys email, the principal is away at the principals conference so not unexpected."

'Inappropriate' emails

The Ministry conceded the emails sent by its staff were "inappropriate" and "extremely disappointing."

"The internal email was inappropriate. It is extremely disappointing and does not reflect the high standards of integrity and accountability expected of Ministry of Education staff," MoE head of education infrastructure Kim Shannon told RNZ.

She declined to say if any action had been taken against those staff.

"It is not appropriate to discuss individual employment matters; however, I have made it clear to all my staff that I expect us to conduct ourselves with professionalism, integrity and accountability at all times.

"On this occasion, we fell well short of the high standards expected of us for which I apologise."

No apology has been offered to Crawford.

"The only communication I have had was confirmation the bus review has been held over until 2021 because of Covid-19 this year," Crawford told RNZ.

Safety concerns dismissed

The emails, obtained by Elsthorpe community member and former RNZ journalist Peter Fowler, also show safety concerns about the proposed bus stop were repeatedly dismissed by the Ministry and Nimon bus company, which was responsible for carrying out a safety check.

In July last year, Crawford wrote to Kennerley calling for the status quo to remain as the new stop "is on a dangerous blind corner, whereas the current one is safe and serves the community well".

Nimon's senior staff, including its chief executive Katie Nimon, dismissed those concerns.

"We have half a plan to back into the driveway of 1235 Kahuranaki Rd," Nimon school service manager Garth Nimon wrote, saying there was "reasonable vision and enough space" to turn a school bus on the blind corner.

Kennerley also accused the community of using safety as an excuse to keep the status quo.

"I would say safety is the smoke screen being used to keep the bus going to the current terminus for the High School students ... once again explained closest schools."

It was only after the community asked the police to carry out its own safety check, which found the stop at 1234 Kahuranaki Road was unsuitable and dangerous, that the proposal was abandoned.

School capacity not a factor

Former Tukituki MP Lawrence Yule told the public meeting in Elsthorpe last year, he had met with Ministry officials in Wellington about the bus issue, where it was implied that overcrowding at Havelock North schools was one of the reasons for the proposed change.

While Elsthorpe students were eligible to attend those schools, they were not eligible for a Ministry-funded bus to get there and it was policy to only transport to their closest school, which was Elsthorpe Primary or Central Hawke's Bay College.

A recent review of Havelock North schools cited they would reach capacity within five years, Yule told the meeting, whereas there were no roll pressures at Elsthorpe or Central Hawke's Bay College.

The Ministry, however, denied this was the reason behind the route change.

"School capacity is never a factor in determining if students meet the eligibility criteria to get school transport assistance," Shannon said.

This might be the case for Elsthorpe, but it was an argument used by officials to encourage students into less popular schools in Taumarunui.

'Terminate student choice'

Documents obtained by RNZ under the Official Information Act show a dramatic cut to bus services was floated as a way to reduce roll pressures in Taumarunui, where the "majority of students are not attending their closest school".

In 2015, the Ministry proposed closing or merging several primary schools in the area because they were under-populated, but a community backlash resulted in the plan being quashed.

In July 2019, a Ministry staffer noted that many of the primary schools were still empty because students "are currently supported by the buses to attend their school of choice".

He proposed reducing the 11 bus services to four or six in order to redirect students to their closest schools which were under-populated.

"Any reduction in bus services will terminate student choice, and will result in students no longer having a way to get to their school of choice."

"This will be an opportunity to better align the school network in Taumarunui."

But he also warned the community would "perceive this bus review as the MoE trying to reorganise the education network again via another avenue (ie bus review)".

School principals in Taumarunui told RNZ they were unaware of these discussions and had never been told about the proposal.

The Ministry said there were no current plans to reduce bus services in Taumarunui.

Widespread change

Communities around the country have faced upheavals in the last year as hundreds of school bus routes have been reviewed and terminated or altered by the Ministry, figures obtained by RNZ show.

Of the 1429 daily bus services funded by the Ministry, 1227, or 85 percent, had been reviewed between July 2019 and July 2020.

More than a third of them (38 percent) had been cut or changed as a result.

The Ministry spent $103 million a year providing daily school bus services, but the route changes only saved $233,679.

In comparison, only 250 routes were reviewed and 190 changed during the previous two years.

A large number of reviews were completed in 2019 in preparation for bus tenders being carried out in 2020, the Ministry said.