To address gaps in school bus safety measures in New Jersey, Assembly Democrats Christopher Tully and Lisa Swain sponsor two bills that would allow certain contractors to be disqualified from transportation contracts and create a School Bus Safety Ombudsman to oversee bus safety matters in the state. Both bills were advanced by the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee on Monday.
Lowest bid requirements have led to contractors with unlicensed drivers and sex offenders being hired to drive New Jersey students on school buses. A-5818 seeks to change that by requiring the State Board of Education to provide for the debarment of school bus contractors for certain violations.
Currently, boards of education are required to accept the lowest possible responsible bid for a transportation contract, unless the board has had certain prior negative experiences with the bidder. Under the bill, contractors who do not meet established requirements can be debarred from bidding on any transportation contract in the state for a set period of time at the discretion of the Commissioner of Education or the Bus Safety Ombudsman.
Contractors could be debarred if they have a record of failing to properly maintain the safety and integrity of their buses, including – but not limited to – allowing unauthorized drivers to operate buses and failing to monitor the criminal history of their bus drivers.
“We simply cannot have unqualified and even dangerous drivers operating school buses due to unintended loopholes forcing school boards to award contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of any red flags indicating that contractor is not suitable for the job,” said Assemblyman Tully (D-Bergen, Passaic). “We must close these loopholes to ensure school boards can take important considerations into account when selecting the people who will be entrusted with the care of our children.”
The bill further requires a list of debarred contractors be maintained on the Department of Education’s website and distributed to school districts/boards of education each year.
A-5814 would create the aforementioned School Bus Safety Ombudsperson position in, but not of, the Department of Education in order to monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities in the state.
“Right now, a lack of communication between the different entities responsible for school bus oversight is making it easier for bad actors to take advantage of the system and win contracts they are not qualified to fulfill,” said Assemblywoman Swain (D-Bergen, Passaic). “The safety of New Jersey children must be our priority. Establishing an Ombudsman will help place oversight in the hands of one independent office that will conduct thorough reviews, coordinate information on behalf of state officials, and make recommendations for important changes to improve school bus safety.”
The Ombudsman’s duties would include:
- Reviewing a school bus driver’s information for a history of criminal charges or alcohol/drug-related vehicle violations;
- Reviewing training certifications for drivers;
- Establishing a publicly accessible database of violations/fines against drivers or contractors;
- Recommending changes regarding school bus safety rules and regulations;
- Deciding whether contractors should be debarred from bidding on transportation contracts, and more.
With this legislation, Assembly members Swain and Tully continue their efforts to enhance school bus safety in New Jersey – an issue they have strongly advocated for after incidents such as an inebriated bus driver with a suspended license hitting several cars, poles and fire hydrants within a 20-minute span, and a student and teacher losing their lives in a tragic bus crash in 2018.
Both bills now head to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.