Swain & Tully: This is how we make school buses safe for New Jersey children again

When parents send their children off to school, they trust their children will be in good hands. From the moment a student leaves their parent’s care to the moment they return, it is the school’s responsibility to keep them safe.

When it comes to the care of children in our school system, there is no room for error – no room for weak links. Yet time and time again, transportation to and from our schools has proven to be the weak link in this system.

Who can forget the inebriated bus driver with a suspended license who hit several cars, poles and fire hydrants within a 20-minute span? Or the horrific bus crash that took the lives of a student and teacher when the driver likely attempted to make a sudden U-turn on the highway?

Those incidents are what prompted us to sponsor our first round of school bus safety legislation alongside fellow LD38 representative Senator Joseph Lagana back in 2018.

Those bills required school bus operations in New Jersey to comply with federal regulations, required drivers to undergo safety education programs, and made it mandatory for drivers to submit proof of their physical fitness – among other changes. Significant strides have been made as a result of that legislation becoming law, yet problems still persist with school transportation in our state.

We were appalled to learn that companies with dilapidated vehicles, reckless and/or unqualified drivers and a history of safety issues are still being contracted to provide transportation services to our students. Policies with unintended consequences have caused loopholes and gaps in our system that must be addressed as soon as possible.

It’s clear our work is not done, which is why we have sponsored another set of bills to further improve school bus safety in our state.

Right now, New Jersey boards of education must accept the lowest bid for pupil transportation contracts in most circumstances. Although they can disqualify a bidder if that bidder has partial or full ownership of a company the board previously had a negative experience with, contractors have found a way around this by reincorporating under a new name with a different family member as the owner.

That doesn’t even take into account contractors who negatively interacted with other school boards in the state. As such, bidders with a history of misconduct are still receiving lucrative transportation contracts that put students in danger.

Our bill (A-5818) would put a stop to this by allowing contractors who do not meet certain requirements to be debarred from bidding on any transportation contract in New Jersey for a set period of time, at the discretion of certain State officials.

Under this measure, contractors could be debarred if they have a history of failing to properly maintain the safety and integrity of their buses. This would include allowing unauthorized drivers to operate buses and failing to monitor the criminal history of their drivers.

A list of those debarred contractors would be maintained on the Department of Education’s website and distributed to each school district so that boards of education can review the list prior to awarding a contract.

This will help close the loopholes that have forced school boards to award contracts even if there were red flags, while making sure all school boards are aware of unsuitable contractors who should not be allowed to transport children.

Our other measure (A-5814) would address the lack of communication between different State entities responsible for bus oversight by creating the position of School Bus Safety Ombudsperson within the Department of Education.

This ombudsperson would help monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities in our state, such as reviewing driver information for a history of criminal charges, reviewing training certification for drivers, recommending changes regarding bus safety rules/regulations, and deciding whether contractors should be debarred.

All of this would help ensure bad actors cannot take advantage of the system and win contracts they have no right to fulfill.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our children. Facilitating better oversight and coordination of bus safety efforts while giving school boards the freedom they need to dismiss dangerous contractors will promote greater trust in the people caring for students. This is how we make school buses safe for our children again.

 

This piece was originally published on NorthJersey.com on August 6, 2021: https://www.northjersey.com/story/opinion/2021/08/06/nj-school-bus-safety-important-legislation-can-help-our-kids/5512834001/