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Will They Pay For It? PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Wegbreit   
Saturday, 01 November 2008 00:00

Texas has one of the nation’s only lap/shoulder belt laws. But funding may jeopardize its future.

Safety may be as simple as buckling up for the students aboard the 36 lap/shoulder belt-equipped school buses at Beaumont Independent School District. For the rest of Texas, and for the rest of the country, buckling up may not be so easy. Under a law signed last year, the restraints will be required on all new buses within the next two years. But a debate over how the state will fund this measure has pitted one legislator against others and the parents of children killed and injured in a school transportation crash.

In Limbo
In June of 2007, Gov. Rick Perry signed a law requiring all new school buses purchased after Sept. 1, 2010, to have lap/shoulder belts and required that chartered buses used in school transportation have the restraints by 2011. The bill was only the second in the nation requiring lap/shoulder restraints on large buses. But, due to a clause in the bill, so far Beaumont may be the only district in the state that has lap-shoulder belts. Under the bill, schools have to equip their school buses only if the state allocates the funding. So far, Texas has not.

The prospect of finding the money when the legislature reconvenes in January has made one senator rethink his support of this legislation. Originally, Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R) and every other senator and nearly every congressman voted in favor of the bill. Now, Wentworth said he and other legislators may have felt “stampeded” into supporting the measure.

“It was probably a mistake to require seat belts on school buses,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s extremely expensive, and there’s no evidence it would significantly save lives or reduce injuries.”

The Texas state senate finance committee would likely not find this one of the top items that should be funded, the senator said.

“Kids are not dying left and right. They are pretty well being transported safely,” he added.

Some in the legislature have voiced their support of the program. Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) has said he will fight “tooth and nail” for the funding while Rep. Warren Chissum (R), chair of the House appropriations committee, suggested a pilot study be completed before allocating funds.

Beaumont Buckles Down to Buckle Up
In Beaumont, lap/shoulder belts will continue to click with or without state funding. Clifton Guillory, the district’s transportation director, said none of the lap/shoulder nightmares bandied about by their opponents have happened. Students buckle up as required. They don’t use the restraints as weapons. And, because he never previously assigned more than two students to a seat, Guillory has experienced no diminished capacity, and no students have not been forced off the bus.

As of August, only 36 of Guillory’s 230 buses have the restraints, but he has been incorporating the specification into his regular replacement cycle over the last year. The restraints added between $7,000 to $9,000 to the price of a bus. According to Guillory, the district may make up some of the incremental cost difference by replacing contracted motorcoach service for activity trips with district-owned, lap/shoulder belt-equipped school buses.

But even if the buses don’t make up any money, Guillory said the cost is money well spent.

“As a transportation professional, I feel it’s my duty to use all the latest technology to make those kids safe,” he said. “If you have it out there, and you can afford to do it, do it.”

Tragedy Built Support
But, as Guillory admits, the community in the Gulf Coast city has been uniquely supportive of restraint funding. Though it was not in a school bus, a 2006 contracted bus crash that killed two members of the West Brook High School girl’s varsity soccer team coalesced parent calls for restraints on all student transport vehicles at the school and later led the group to the state and nation’s capital to call for even wider installation.

Allison Forman lost much of the use of her left arm in the crash. Her father, Steve Forman, now advocates for lap/shoulder belts across the nation, specifically in motorcoaches. For Forman, the National Highway Transportation Administration’s assertion that lap/shoulder belts, in conjunction with compartmentalization, “would afford that optimum protection” is a call to place the restraints on every school bus.

Forman disagrees with Sen. Wentworth’s assessment of the financial challenge. As he calculates it, equipping all of the state’s 35,590 school buses with lap-shoulder belts would cost about $15 million per year for 10 years.

“In the 2007 session, the state spent $14 billion on education,” Forman said. “You’re talking about less than a 0.1 percent increase.”

Considering Texas’ local funding, that slice could be even smaller. Texas districts have authority over local property taxes. Of $39.5 billion spent on education statewide in 2006-2007, $21.6 billion, came from local, property-tax fed funds. Only $17.9 billion came from state and federal sources.

Still, convincing local boards or the state legislature to raise funds when districts’ most pressing and most headline-grabbing concern is the cost of fuel may be difficult. Forman said the only way he sees school buses getting federal funding is if groups like NAPT present a united front in favor of lap/shoulder belts.

Reprinted from the November 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 June 2010 15:57