Education Secretary Norma Foley says she is “hopeful” of getting money in next week’s budget to provide a school bus seat for about 6,000 students who have not yet received their tickets.
s Foley addressed the Oireachtas Board of Education, where she was repeatedly criticized that students who were expecting a seat on the school bus this year are still lacking one.
It is a clear indication of the pressure on Mrs Foley on this issue that she discloses the nature of the budget negotiations.
So far this year, more than 20,000 additional students are being carried in service, but some children and young people who had a seat up to four years old and up have not received one for 2022/23.
Thousands have lost to record demand for tickets this year following the government’s decision in July to waive fees for 2022/23 as part of its response to the cost of living crisis.
The new term is now entering its fourth week and TDs and senators told how children have been “left at the side of the road” and how some parents have been forced to change their daily habits to make long drives to bring their children back and forth School.
At the meeting there was a terse exchange between the Minister and the Committee Chair, TD Paul Kehoe, while he pressed Ms Foley for an answer as to whether a child being carried on a bus without a ticket would be covered by insurance.
Mr Kehoe said he knew of a route in Co Wexford where the driver “let everyone get on”, including children without tickets.
At one point, when Ms. Foley suggested Mr. Kehoe hadn’t heard a prior reply, he interjected, “I’ll ask the questions.”
During the exchange, Ms Foley said it was the driver’s responsibility to ensure each child had a ticket and Mr Kehoe accused the minister of “not knowing the answer”.
The minister said Mr Kehoe had raised a “very important issue” and that he had a duty in relation to the matter, to which Mr Kehoe replied that Ms Foley had “a duty to answer questions” about insurance.
While committee members generally acknowledged the gesture of waiving school transportation fees, Mr Kehoe said it was a “big mistake” not to keep a nominal fee.
He is aware of one family with four children who received tickets for the first time but “have no intention of using them”.
He said they applied because they were free and “might need it one day”, but in doing so they blocked four discounted passengers on the route.
“If you give something for free, everyone will be looking for it,” Mr Kehoe said, suggesting a fee of €100 or €150 should have been charged.
Ms Foley said €150 was a “significant burden”, to which Mr Kehoe replied that the change placed a “significant burden” on parents who now drive children to school.
Unprecedented demand for the service followed July’s announcement that tickets for 2022/23 are free.
It saves families up to 500 euros.
It sparked a record 130,000 applications from ordinary school students and Bus Eireann, which runs the service mainly through private contractors, has struggled to source enough buses and drivers to meet demand.
Tickets will be issued to children who meet the eligibility criteria and if there is capacity on the buses thereafter, vacant seats will be reallocated to other students who are not eligible but are known as ‘discounted’ passengers.
Schooling patterns in some areas have resulted in a legacy of ‘discounted’ passengers, particularly on the second tier.
About 124,000 regular students, both eligible and concessionary, have been enrolled for 2022-23, an increase of 20,400 from this point last year.
Ms Foley said the number included an increase in concession ticket holders by about a third.
Ms Foley said around 600 eligible students who did not already have a seat would be given one and Bus Eireann is working through those cases.
Bus Eireann is not currently seeking additional capacity for discounted passengers, although some could benefit from providing additional capacity for eligible students.
However, Ms Foley is in negotiations over budget funds to accommodate this group of up to 6,000 people and today said she was “hopeful”.
The service cost 289 euros last year and so far this year the cost has increased by about 40 million euros, the minister said
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly told the minister: “We were given a ticket and we didn’t apply for it”.
Sinn Féin Education spokesman Donnchadh O’Laoghaire said families who have built their lives around the school bus have felt let down for years.
Labor education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the issue had been “grossly mishandled” and asked the minister to apologize to families. He said the homework on the implications of the fee waiver should have been done before the announcement was made.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/education/education-minister-norma-foley-hopeful-of-funding-to-carry-6000-more-pupils-in-school-busses-42006887.html Education Secretary Norma Foley “hopes” for funding to get 6,000 more students on school buses