There are serious concerns in west Roscommon about changes to the bus service that brings special needs’ children to St Michael’s School, Castlerea.
Labour Senator John Kelly has revealed that at least three bus operators – in Ballinlough, Castlerea and Lisacul – have been told that, come next month, their services will no longer be required for this purpose.
He said that new operators had been chosen following a procurement process, under EU policy, which he described as “spurious”. The changes, which will commence when school resumes next month, have caused unrest about the parents and relatives of many service users throughout west Roscommon.
Loughglynn-based Nora Maher’s granddaughter, Haley, who is aged seven, is one of those set to be affected. She is very angry about the news.
Ms Maher said: “Haley has a lot of special needs and learning difficulties. She is the only one on the bus who is in a wheelchair. “They bring her up to the bus, put her on the ramp and make sure she is locked in. We don’t know how the other guy is going to manage this. Is he going to be rough?”
She said that the previous bus driver had built up a rapport with the children, which is especially important for those who attend the school. His family had provided the service for 30 years and he himself for 13 years.
“Special needs children are finicky about the friends, who they trust, and who they instantly attach to,” said Ms Maher. “The parents and the people who mind the children, have to trust the people we give them to. “We hand these children over to the bus driver and their helpers. And then they go off on the bus and we don’t know what is happening them.”
Ms Maher is concerned that the new bus contractor might not be able to cope if they children become agitated.
She said: “We don’t know if that man or woman is going to be able to cope if the children have a little tantrum, get upset or overexcited. All of these things need to be considered with children who have special needs.”
Senator Kelly believes that the procurement process used shows scant regard for the needs of the service users.
The Ballaghaderreen-based politician said: “All that concerns Bus Éireann is how you clean your bus, the proposed driver route, training and experience. “They are the four things that they consider when you submit your tender. It doesn’t take the needs of the children into account – the bond developed over many years between the bus operator and the special needs student.”
Bus Éireann regrets inconvenience
Responding to concerns about the changes to the St Michael’s School bus service, Bus Éireann have expressed regret for inconvenience caused.
However, they said that they were bound by public procurement regulations. They said that these did not allow them to show preferential treatment to a driver who had previously held the contract.
A spokesperson said: “Disruption to service provision is undesirable and we endeavour to minimise disruption as far as possible. “However, Bus Éireann is obliged to tender all works, goods and services, in line with the European Directives on public procurement.”
They said that the rules of the competition and the selection and award criteria were clearly outlined to all interested parties. The spokesperson added: “Previous experience is taken into account, but Bus Éireann does not have discretion to award extra marks to a contractor who has years of experience with the company.
“This would afford an unfair advantage.” They said that, as part of the process, experience in transporting children with special needs was taken into account.