Hawea Flat is ticked off, and not quiet about it

Hawea Flat School in 2022. The Ministry of Education intends to move the school to Lake Hawea,...
Hawea Flat School in 2022. The Ministry of Education intends to move the school to Lake Hawea, nealry 9km away. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
The Government and its ministries spends their days making decisions of national importance, but those decisions have local ramifications.

Take, for example, the burgeoning hamlet of Hawea Flat, the residents of which are not best pleased at having found themselves square in the middle of a whole host of decisions made in far-off Wellington.

In fact, they are so displeased that they have petitioned Parliament on one of their many grievances, the school bus service which brings many of its pupils to class and home again.

There are about 600 people in Hawea Flat and more than half of them signed the petition — a very respectable turnout — before it was handed to Waitaki National MP Jacqui Dean to present to Parliament.

Petitions are all about the voice of the citizen being heard, and heard most assuredly the people of Hawea Flat were: having set aside 10 minutes to hear the school’s submission in support of the petition, they got double that time to make their points to the petitions select committee — which Mrs Dean chairs, although she was absent for this item of business.

The Hawea Flat School roll is expected to reach 320 pupils by the end of this year, and by then an anticipated 245 of them will be eligible to take a bus there.

The school sources pupils from Luggate, part of Lake Hawea (84 pupils), and the Maungawera area (78 pupils), and each bus on the Timsfield and Lake routes can seat about 43.

Their loading certificates say that each bus can seat up to 62 primary-aged children, at a highly uncomfortable, non-socially-distant, three to a seat, and with about 10 children standing — in contravention of an earlier agreement that children should not be standing.

Principal Tina Pringle was flanked by pupils Gemma Cragg and Sophie Fulford, the year 6 girls showing few nerves about their unusual social studies class.

The girls said that they overheated in the crammed buses in the summer, and that winter conditions could make the bus routes — which include several 100kmh highways, as well as gravel roads — treacherous.

"When we go over bumps kids bounce in their seats, kids fall forward, hit the windows, and sometimes fall out of their seats," Sophie said.

"It can be very scary for the little kids," Gemma said.

"It has caused lots of anxiety for some kids and they won’t go on the bus any more."

Ms Pringle said that the ministry was considering only the loading capacity of the buses and not their seating capacity — and that those seats had humps in the middle so they were unsafe.

"We just want a decent amount of buses."

The Ministry of Education’s written submission on the petition said it would need evidence that the seating capacity on existing services was insufficient, and after talking to the transport provider it was not satisfied that it was.

It also offered the school a "runback" service, where each bus would do two trips, but Ms Pringle said that could mean some children having to wait 40 minutes or more for a bus — hardly a pleasant thing to do in the winter — and miss out on after-school activities.

While the petitions committee’s remit was was narrowly focused on Hawea Flat School, MPs were more than well aware that there was a much broader issue at play.

School bus route provision is a staple issue for any provincial or rural electorate MP, and it truly matters for small towns like Hawea Flat, where the school is at the centre of the local community.

The safety of the children on those buses is also paramount, and this is not the first time a southerner has petitioned Parliament on the issue: Otematata woman Philippa Chapman amassed more than 6500 signatures on her 2021 petition which called for all new school buses to be fitted with seat belts.

This is also not the only tussle with Wellington concerning Hawea Flat School at the moment.

Unrelated to the school bus issue, the Ministry of Education dropped a bombshell last month when it announced it planned to move the 140-year-old school 9km up the road to Lake Hawea.

Given that Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced three years ago that four new classrooms would be built at the school, it’s fair to say that few locals saw the change coming.

It would be even fairer to say that few were mollified by the ministry’s assertion that a new, modern school was needed given the population projections for the region, and that the lakeside settlement was the best place for it.

The mood of a community meeting last week was that those projections made a case for two schools in the area, not one, and that they were determined to fight for a facility which many have raised funds for and helped build.

You get the feeling that Parliament’s petitions select committee will be hearing from Hawea Flat again in the not too distant future.

Tactical voting

At former Dunedin North MP Stan Rodger’s memorial service last Friday, Speaker Trevor Mallard reflected on Mr Rodger’s chairing of the Mangere electorate selection meeting which eventually landed on future Prime Minister David Lange as its candidate.

Mr Mallard suggested that there might have actually been very few people on the selection committee who favoured Mr Lange ... apart from Mr Rodger, who told the committee — without taking a vote — that he was going to go out to tell the meeting that his man had won.

Mr Rodger was not the only southern MP farewelled last week: four-term Awarua MP Rex Austin was also remembered in a memorial service in Invercargill.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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