The 85th Legislature recently passed a law requiring all new school buses purchased after Sept. 1 to have three-point seat belts, which include shoulder and lap straps, for all passengers.

The law may seem like a win for all involved with the additional safety measure to protect children. The National Transportation Safety Board in recent years started recommending all school buses come equipped with the three-point belts, despite buses’ other safety features and impressive safety record without seat belts.

But local officials said they need more help from the state to cover the costs. They are concerned about the financial impact the unfunded state mandate will have on taxpayers in growing districts in the area.

$8-12K more per new vehicle

The new requirement, which adds $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost for each new bus, will be just one more financial strain on districts operating under a state transportation-funding formula that hasn’t been updated since the 1980s, Waco ISD school officials said.

Lawmakers are expected to duke it out over public education funding reform in an upcoming special legislative session starting July 18, after a bill that would have added $1.5 billion into public schools died during the regular session.

“We’re going to do what we have to do with the amount of money we have,” said Rick Hartley, the district’s area superintendent over facilities and transportation. “What parents can do is be aware politicians that represent them may or may not be representing their best interests or all of their interests. The more they can just be in communication with their representatives and express where they’d like attention to be placed, that’s our form of government.”

Rates for the reimbursement were established as part of the General Appropriations Act in 1984, according to the Texas Education Agency. And though the state has given anywhere from $310 million to $363 million in reimbursement allotments since 2009, local officials said it’s not nearly enough to cover the regular costs of transporting thousands of students.

In McLennan County, state money covers half, or less, of school transportation costs, school officials said.

Waco ISD, the county’s largest school district, spent $1,322,618 last year on regular routes and transfer routes alone, Hartley said. The state returned $661,819, he said.

The $660,000 gap between costs and state reimbursement falls to local taxpayers, and the burden is likely to grow in the next five years, with the district expected to add almost 300 students, he said.

The district tries to replace old buses a few at a time to avoid getting hit with a huge expense in a single year.

“When you’re talking about $100,000 a bus, and you’re running 85 buses in a fleet, that’s a very expensive bill,” Hartley said. “So you do a little bit at a time.”

With the added cost of seat belts, Waco ISD could spend as much as $1.3 million on the 11 new buses it plans to buy this year, he said. The extra $8,000 to $12,000 per bus for seat belts would add up to enough for the district to buy a 12th bus for the same amount it plans to spend, if seat belts weren’t required.

One bus running a regular route to and from school costs the district about $177.04 per day, he said.

Cost-per-mile rates are ever-changing on the back of driving regulations, gas prices and maintenance costs. Hartley and officials from other local school districts said they would like to see lawmakers at least consider matching the amount districts spend every year to ease the local burden.

Midway ISD is in a similar boat, said Wesley Brooks, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance. Midway spent $1.4 million on salaries and benefits for school transportation last year and collected about $477,000 from the state, Brooks said.

Like other school districts, Midway is balancing the cost of inflation, stricter vehicle specifications and requirements, and increased costs for training and testing for bus driver certifications, maintenance and transportation director Corry Crager said. Certification tests that once took less than two days to schedule with the Department of Public Safety now take sometimes up to a month or longer, Midway ISD Transportation Coordinator Brian Fair said.

Adding to training costs, there is a significant amount of bus driver turnover every year and a shortage each summer, Fair said.

“This is a problem the state has, and it’s not just transportation,” Crager said. “It’s just like school funding is a big issue every year for state funding. … The state doesn’t increase its funding, but we’re required to buy the buses with cushioned seats and seat belts.

“I’ve been in business for 25 years now, and you get used to it. It’s driven by the politics of the time and safety from parents, and you’ve got to respect that the parents want their kids safe because they’re entrusting you to make sure they’re safe. But we’re entrusting the state to say it’s OK to have seat belts or it’s safer to have compartmentalization. Whatever they dictate to us, we’ve got to do anyway, so I just take it and go, and Wesley has to worry about the budget.”

Key safety question

But the logic behind whether buses with seat belts are actually safer seems to be the key question about the additional costs for school districts, Waco ISD bus driver Christine Robbins said.

Robbins has been a school bus driver for more than 20 years and lobbied against a similar seat belt law while she was working in Arizona, she said. Robbins works for GoldStar Transit, which is contracted with Waco ISD and is against the new Texas law.

She compared riding a school bus to that of riding in an airplane: While both are dangerous, you’re still more likely to be involved in a fatal crash in a typical passenger car, she said. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are the safest vehicles on the road because of their design and the laws protecting them. Students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely in a bus than in a passenger car, according to the NHTSA.

The federal government requires school buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less to have either a lap belt or shoulder belt for all seating positions, but for bigger buses the decision is left up to the state.

Though the decision is left to the state, the NHTSA reports that larger buses are able to protect passengers without seat belts because of how they distribute crash forces and with strong, closely spaced seats with high, protective seat backs.

The seats, however, aren’t much help when it comes to side-impact crashes or high-speed rollovers, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which recommends three-point belts on new school buses.

“The problem is kids want to communicate on the bus,” Robbins said. “So what do they do? They turn sideways, and if I hit my brakes, you’ve just broken their collarbone with the seat belt. If every one of these kids are in seat belts, do you think I can cut every one of them to get them out? Parents don’t see that.”

State rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson didn’t return a request for comment Friday on the issue, and state Sen. Brian Birdwell’s chief of staff, Ben Stratmann, said Friday Birdwell and his education staffer would discuss the issue in the near future.

In McGregor, a fairly rural district with longer bus routes, James Lenamon, the new superintendent, is trying to figure out how to manage the costs without a transportation department head to start the year.

When the funding formula was first established, Lenamon was still in high school, he said. He was named superintendent in March and has been with McGregor ISD for 15 years. The district of about 1,450 students is trying to buy a new bus each year to accommodate its growing population and the 400 to 500 students who already ride each year, he said.

State funding

Like McLennan County’s largest districts, the state covers less than half of McGregor’s transportation spending in the past year. It spent $363,550 for the 2015-2016 school year and received $120,978 back from the state, Lenamon said.

“We’re at 30 percent growth in the last decade, roughly, and we’re growing 50 to 60 kids a year, and we fully expect that to happen again this year,” Lenamon said. “It’s just going to get more and more expensive for us. … In ’15-’16, they reimbursed us 88 cents a mile to run the transportation system. It cost us $2.21 a mile. Without a doubt, there needs to be some consideration given to the funding there, and right now the consideration we’ve been given is we’re going to cut your allotment and push that more on the local citizens to take care of that.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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