A public meeting held in response to new school bus rules for students in Urris heard how parents are anxious the “ridiculous decision” will be overturned.
It was confirmed at the meeting, and again in the Dail on Tuesday, that children from Urris, who have to attend school in Buncrana to avail of the school transport scheme, will not now have to travel over Mamore Gap, as previously feared.
However, they will now have to travel to Clonmany and on to Buncrana, a further distance than that from Urris to Carndonagh.
The meeting in Tiernasligo National School on Monday evening was attended by a large group of parents and a number of public representatives.
Following this, Deputy Charlie McConalogue raised the issue with Education Minister Damien English in the Dail on Tuesday.
Minister English told Deputy McConalogue the scheme had to be “implemented fairly” across the country.
He also said it had been discovered a number of children in the area had been incorrectly assessed as eligible for school transport and in the 2015/2016 year, are only eligible for this on a concessionary basis.
Deputy McConalogue replied it was “disgraceful” the department had not looked at the particulars of the case in Urris.
The rule has been brought in as the Department of Education and Bus Eireann, using the route over Mamore Gap, deems Buncrana to be closer than Carndonagh - where children from Urris have traditionally attended secondary school.
Parents expressed a number of concerns over the safety of this route and also due to the fact siblings from the same family, some of whom already attend Carndonagh, will be split up.
There is also a finance issue, as parents who opt not to send their children to Buncrana will have to pay up to 650 euro for the bus to Carn.
The public meeting was chaired by parent Brian Harkin who said the department have confirmed the school bus will not travel via Mamore Gap but that it will still be used to calculate distance.
The measure was described at the meeting as “bonkers” and the parents agreed to ask Education Minister, Damien English to travel to Urris and see for himself the route the children will have to take.
Speaking at the meeting, Mr Harkin said parents were anxious that the “ridiculous decision” would be overturned.
He added that even though the bus route will now not go via Mamore Gap, as previously feared, it now means the children will have to be taken to Clonmany to travel to Buncrana, “which leaves the distance further than it was to start with.”
Mr Harkin said the department’s insistence that distance is determined by the “shortest traversable route” is national policy and one which they do not want to “back down on.”
He also pointed out how many parents had already bought books and uniforms for Carndonagh school, as the date to do so would have passed by the time any appeal decision was known.
He said many could now not afford to also buy the same for Buncrana schools.
Questions were raised at the meeting over how the scheme would present value for money and parents also told how their children were worried about the situation, with many unsure which school they would be attending in September.
Earlier in the day, the parents had met with Minister Joe McHugh who told them he had been “hitting a brick wall” in relation to the policy but would continue to make representations to the Minister.
He said the minister had asked for a breakdown of the costings of the routes to and from the schools.
Speaking at the meeting, Deputy McConalogue said he thought the issue would have been resolved many months previously.
He said there weren’t many cases across the country similar to the situation in Urris, pointing out the school transport distance eligibility rules were put in place in 2012/2013.
He said the department had made a mistake at that time as any student who had already started school in Carndonagh was eligible for free transport.
He said: “They didn’t, at that time, give the option to parents that if they wanted free transport they would have to go to Buncrana and if they wanted to go to Carn then they’d have to pay. They should have owned up to that mistake then; that would have been good manners. “
Deputy McConalogue said there were “exceptional geographic circumstances” in Urris and which should be taken into account.
Deputy Padraig MacLochlainn said he had raised the issue on many occasions with Minister English, adding the decision was “nonsensical.”
He said if Minister English visited the area, he could not “stand over” the decision and the policy itself, adding he “needs to stand up to department officials and say this is bonkers.”
Deputy MacLochlainn said he had spoken with the local Bus Eireann Inspector who confirmed distance eligibility was national policy and he did not have flexibility on it.
Councillor Rena Donaghey said Urris was “very, very different to other areas” and said all of Inishowen’s councillors were “fully behind” the community.
Colr Donaghey also pointed out how there were also other “criteria to tick” in relation to qualifying for the free school transport scheme, including the fact that there must be ten children eligible for that bus.
She added it “beggars belief” that the new rules could see children from the same families going to different schools, with children already at Carndonagh staying there and their siblings only eligible to travel to Buncrana.
Councillor Bernard McGuinness said the policy was “bureaucracy gone mad,” and added that children should avail of free transport, not concessionary.
Colr John Ryan pointed out that a similar situation had previously occurred in Newtown, with children required to travel to Raphoe. He said both buses, for Raphoe and Letterkenny then picked children up at opposite ends of the street, passing each other on the road.
He said while that went ahead, that situation was “crazy, but not as crazy as this one.”
Colr Nicholas Crossan said he too “genuinely believed” the situation would have been sorted out and said it was an “attack on rural Ireland.”
“Where does bureaucracy start and common sense end?” he said.
Colr Martin McDermott said it was important that all three TDs brought the parents’ concerns to Dublin and told how he had been involved in a number of campaigns over the years.
He told the parents to “never give up” adding it was clear to see everyone, regardless of political party were “on the same wavelength.”
Colr Albert Doherty said the “status quo” of Urris children travelling to Carndonagh was a system which “does not need fixing.”
He said parents and representatives were fighting for the students’ future happiness and to allow them to attend a second level school of their choice.
Deputy MacLochlainn proposed that a committee from the school ask to meet with Minister English in Urris.
He said Minister English was, in his experience, a “decent person” and added it was “a job of ministers to sometimes stand up to department officials and say: ‘I cannot defend this scheme’.”
Mr Harkin concluded the meeting by telling how the community was depending on public representatives to “fight for us.”
He added that the Dail was due to break up for summer and only resume close to the beginning of the school year.
He said this meant parents and their children will be left “in limbo” over the next few weeks.