In an attempt to clear up ambiguities between state and federal law, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation is urging school districts nationwide to only transport students in school buses rather than in vans that do not conform to federal standards for school bus safety.
NASDPTS issued the position on Dec. 5 in response to an increasing number of questions asked by local schools on the legality and cost of the issue. In 2005, Congress attempted to close a loophole by prohibiting dealerships from selling or leasing to schools newly manufactured 11- to 15-passenger vans, including the driver, that are not built to federal standards for school buses or multifunction school activity buses.
A provision of the SAFETEA-LU legislations, the congressional mandate only applies to home-to-school transportation. School districts were already prohibited by federal law from purchasing new nonconforming vans for fixed-route student transportation.
Still, school districts and especially private and charter schools are using the vehicles, which NASDPTS called “a significant issue.” One of the biggest reasons is cost. For example, a 2017 Ford Transit Wagon retails for about $45,000 while a comparable sized Type A school bus or MFSAB can cost $15,000 to $20,000 more, depending on options.
“I am guessing the increased number of questions are arising because of the proliferation of charter schools and others, where the operators sometimes have less experience in transportation or institutional knowledge of the longstanding federal rules, safety advisories, (National Transportation Safety Board) recommendations, and other guidance recommending against the use of full-size vans for student transport and that school buses be used whenever possible,” explained Charlie Hood, executive director of NASDPTS.
NASDPTS’ paper concludes that schools opting for what they consider to be less expensive non-conforming vans are doing so at risk of putting themselves in legal jeopardy. Unlike their school bus counterparts, drivers of these vehicles are not required to have a CDL, receive specialized driver training, and undergo criminal background and driver history checks. They are also not subjected to periodic medical fitness exams and drug or alcohol testing.
“This is an alarming situation with potentially disastrous consequences,” writes NASDPTS.
Based on a 2015 NASDPTS survey of members, Arizona, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin reported that full-size vans designed to carry 10 or fewer passengers are allowable vehicles for transporting public school students from home to their campuses and back. Massachusetts law mandates these “7D vehicles” or “school pupil transport vehicles” be used for transporting no more than eight students on fixed routes and have the words “School Bus” affixed to the vehicle. They must also be inspected twice a year.
Wisconsin law stipulates that vans are allowable as long as the vehicles aren’t engaged in roadside pickup. Since 2011, Nebraska has outlawed 15-passenger vans from transporting students but does allow 12-passenger vans to be modified to carry 10 passengers and the driver.
Arizona and North Carolina rely on attorney general interpretations that non-conforming vans be prohibited from transporting students to and from school. North Carolina state law also requires that all vehicles used by school units for to and from transportation meet school bus specifications. But grey areas remain.
Kevin Harrison, the transportation sector chief for the state’s Department of Public Instruction, said no statute exists to prohibit contracted companies from using vans, aside from the federal law again stating the companies like school districts are not to purchase or lease them new. And additional ambiguities center around vans purchased used or obtained in some other manner.
“The federal government regulates the purchase of new vehicles in interstate commerce. The problem is they don’t regulate what happens once the vehicle is not new anymore,” he explained Kevin Harrison. “All of their law is related to selling a vehicle to somebody. If a school district got a vehicle donated, for example, there’s nothing in state law prohibiting them from using it.”
Twenty-three states allow for passenger car, MPVs or light trucks to transport students to and from school on fixed routes. And nine states allow vans for curriculum-related trips.