The collapse of the council’s home to school transport service was described as an “epic failure” as senior councillors agreed to budget extra cash.
It means the school run for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will receive an extra £1 million and a promise of a smoother start to the coming academic year.
The bail-out was agreed at a Brighton and Hove City Council meeting this week.
The council’s Special Policy and Resources Committee had been told that the service was forecast to go £1.2 million over budget in the current 2020-21 financial year.
Conservative councillor Joe Miller said that the extra allocation of money was welcome after the chaotic scenes at the start of the school year last autumn.
Some children were left with no transport while others were taken to and from school in conditions described as unsafe or inappropriate.
But, Councillor Miller said, it was a vast sum considering the annual struggle, when the council set its budget, to find £50,000 for children’s respite care.
He said: “This is a failure of epic proportions made by the council and someone must be held accountable. I would like to see the leader of the council apologise for this.”
He added that the council should learn from what worked well previously before it switched from a traditional system of contracts to a “dynamic purchasing system” intended to save £300,000.
The decision to switch was made by officials on the advice of cost-cutting consultants Edge Public Solutions who walked away earlier this year with more than £180,000.
Council chief executive Geoff Raw said that he was looking into the problems although his immediate focus was on the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Raw said: “It is incredibly important for officer teams to understand when we make mistakes and understand how we don’t make those mistakes in the future.”
An independent review said that the home to school transport service was underfunded compared with those run by similar councils and the dynamic purchasing system was introduced too quickly.
Green councillor Hannah Clare, who chairs the Home to School Transport Policy Panel, thanked staff for “managing a lot of criticism and stress with grace”.
She said: “Had these changes not been pursued by the administration, I do not think we would have a projected overspend this high. This budget increase is covering that overspend and then some.”
Councillor Clare said that the policy panel would make more recommendations in addition to those from the independent review.
Quoting the independent review’s findings, she said that a dynamic purchasing system was more suited to stationery.
The policy panel is due to hold its next meeting at 10am on Wednesday (3 June).
Green councillor David Gibson said that he had looked back over five years but only once had home to school transport gone significantly over budget.
He said: “It appears financially we had a procurement system that seemed to be working efficiently and not overspending. The council has ended up replacing it with one that has overspent.
“Now we are in a situation where we are sanctioning greater resources. It’s caused a lot of distress.
“My heart goes out not only to the people impacted by this transport chaos but also the staff that have had to deal with what seems to be a bit of a mess.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Labour councillor Daniel Yates said that he would not “defend the indefensible” and added: “There were some grave errors and mistakes made during the process of this reprocurement.
“We should not underestimate the impact that had on some of the most vulnerable families across the city. Some were predictable or at least preparable for.”
Councillor Yates said that the council understood the need to get out of a hole and had backed a bigger budget.
The interim head of the home to school transport service, Regan Delf, said that more staff were needed and some of the budget would pay for the extra posts.
She said that the existing small team had spent most of its time “firefighting” what was an “unacceptable situation”.
And she added that the council intended to “roll over” the current contracts to the next academic year.
Before schools closed because of the coronavirus, eight firms took some 470 children and young people – most with complex special educational needs and disabilities – to and from school, operating almost 180 routes.
Conservative councillor Steve Bell asked for a breakdown of the overspend to establish why a system intended to save money had ended up costing the council so much more.
Councillor Bell said that the problem “was nothing to do with central government but purely down to this administration”.
He said: “The most vulnerable – and the parents of the most vulnerable – were let down by the decisions that were made.”
He asked that the Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) be included in discussions about recruitment among other things.
The council’s interim executive director for children, families and learning, Deb Austin, said that it would be vital for the council to work with parents’ groups PaCC and Amaze.
She said: “The changes made in September 2019 were not done in true partnership with PaCC.
“We have worked hard to rebuild trust and our relationships with PaCC and Amaze.”
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