School-choice programs create dilemma in Florida
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida lawmakers are considering changes to an 8-year-old efficiency-based formula that’s used to determine state reimbursement of pupil transportation costs. They hope the revisions will allow districts that offer school-choice programs to garner greater state funding support for transportation.
Under the existing formula, districts offering school-choice programs generally incur higher transportation costs and receive proportionally less state reimbursement than counties that don’t offer these programs. That’s because students in school-choice programs often are transported farther and for longer periods of time than their counterparts in non-choice districts. The result is a lower Average Bus Occupancy index, one gauge used by the state to determine reimbursement.
The Florida legislature last year established a school transportation workgroup to find an equitable solution to this dilemma. Charlie Hood, school transportation director for the Florida Department of Education, is chair of the group, which released a preliminary report on March 1 titled “Funding Transportation to Florida’s Schools of Choice: Findings and Recommendations.”
In its report, the workgroup expressed its overall support of school-choice programs and issued several recommendations to achieve an equitable distribution of transportation funds.
A key recommendation was that the state increase its overall funding of student transportation. “State funding of student transportation remains inadequate, irrespective of the impact of choice programs, and is declining relative to cost,” the report said. The workgroup pointed out that the state reimbursed only 66 percent of statewide transportation costs in 1995-96, the first year under the current formula. During the 2001-02 school year, the reimbursement had dipped to 57 percent.
The workgroup recommended that the state funding level should be established at 70 percent. “At a minimum, [we recommend] that the actual 1995 appropriated level of 66 percent state funding should be restored,” the workgroup said in the report.
In addition, the workgroup noted that state funding of the Public School Choice Incentive Grant Program, some of which went toward transportation costs, totaled $29 million for the 1998-99, 1999-2000 and 2000-01 school years, but no appropriations were made for 2001-02 or 2002-03.
To adjust the reimbursement formula, the workgroup suggested that a weighted component be established within the formula for students transported to schools of choice. “This weighting, if established, should be on a per-student basis and should be based on a detailed analysis of the extra cost associated with transporting students to schools of choice,” the report said.
The workgroup also voiced its concern that any new reimbursement formula not penalize school districts that don’t provide school-choice transportation. “A weighted funding component should only be approved if additional funds are appropriated sufficient to hold all districts harmless, on a per-student basis,” the report said.
Choice programs were defined to include controlled open enrollment, charter schools, magnet schools and federally required programs such as education of homeless students and other requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Of the 997,000 public school students currently transported to school in Florida, 192,293 (or 19.3 percent) are categorized as “choice” students. The projection for the 2003-04 school year is a 3.7 percent increase, to 199,439 students, according to the workgroup.
Q&A: Father of abused child speaks out
MILWAUKEE — On the morning of April 29, Vince and Rosemary Mutulo hid a voice-activated tape recorder in their son Jacob’s backpack before he boarded the school bus. At the end of the day, the tape had captured evidence of Jacob’s bus driver threatening and slapping the 9-year-old, who has Down syndrome. Since then, the driver has admitted to yelling at the boy on several other occasions. SBF Assistant Editor Thomas McMahon spoke with Jacob’s father on his reaction to the abuse and what he thinks should be done.
SBF: Why did you decide to tape record your son’s bus ride?
VINCE MUTULO: Because all year, the bus driver had been writing him up for his behavior. We’ve been through IEPs for my son where we’ve talked to educators, psychiatrists and speech pathologists. We usually do one a year. We went through three or four of them this year alone just trying to figure out how to deal with Jacob’s behavior. And nobody could figure out what gain he was getting. Typically, there’s a reason the child goes through this behavior. I said, "We've got to find out what Jacob is doing on this bus that is so bad that he's getting written up all the time." So we put the tape recorder on the bus, and we got 45 minutes or so of him getting hell.
What were your thoughts when you first heard the tape?
MUTULO: I was sickened. My wife and I put him on the bus every morning, give him his hugs and kisses and tell him, "Now behave on the bus and be good for the bus driver." So this kid doesn’t know that we don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes when he came home and gave me a write-up, I’d ask my son to go up and apologize to the bus driver. And Jacob would walk up to the bus driver, give him a hug and say he’s sorry. This kid doesn’t know which end is up. He’s getting in trouble for something he’s not really responsible for.
Do you think this is a problem that’s happening elsewhere?
MUTULO: Well, I base my comment on what I’ve been hearing from people throughout the country who have responded to us, and I would have to say that it is definitely a nationwide problem — not even happening only in this continent, for that matter. It doesn’t reflect all bus drivers, because Jacob’s been riding the bus since he was 3 years old. And up to this time, he’s always had excellent bus drivers and never had any problems, never was written up. But we think there needs to be a better way of checking backgrounds. Wherever the person came from, they just do the check for Wisconsin — not a complete background check. So [that] is one of the things we’re going to try to change.
Would cameras on the buses help with this problem?
MUTULO: I think it would. There were seven children on this bus, and I think there’s only one of them that could speak clearly. The other kids are autistic, deaf or severely handicapped. We want cameras on the buses so the silent voices these kids have can be heard with impartial cameras. And I’m not saying they have to put cameras in every single bus. You have to start with the special-needs buses.
Engine makers back EPA program
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three major school bus engine manufacturers have announced their respective support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recently unveiled Clean School Bus USA initiative.
Caterpillar Inc., Cummins Inc. and International Truck and Engine Corp., parent company of school bus maker IC Corp., will partner with EPA's new program, which intends to replace or upgrade existing buses by 2010 while reducing school bus idling.
The engine companies will provide various emissions reduction technologies to help school districts across the country meet upcoming EPA requirements, including a 2007 standard on particulate and hydrocarbon emissions.
Tom Cellitti, VP and general manager of International’s Bus Vehicle Center, called for government backing at a recent EPA conference. "Funding must be a priority by legislators and regulators in Washington and in the states so that unfunded mandates do not cause children to be removed from school buses and use less safe forms of transportation," he said.
The three engine companies have also been involved with their own emissions ventures. Caterpillar recently formed the Emissions Retrofit Solutions Group, Cummins has its Fleetguard Emission Solutions and International has a research-oriented Website at www.greendieseltechnology.com.
CASTO regroups amid state budget crisis
ONTARIO, Calif. — Despite a state budget shortfall that has forced school districts to cut millions of dollars from their budgets, the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO) convened to address pressing legislative issues as well as the financial burden that kept many members from attending.
Doug Snyder, government relations chair, reviewed state and federal legislation that CASTO is following, such as House Bill 272, “The School Bus Safety Act of 2001.” The bill is designed to close a loophole in federal regulations and prohibit the use of 15-passenger vans to transport students. CASTO officials also highlighted California Vehicle Code 2212, a new law that requires school bus drivers to deactivate the amber light warning system after reaching a stop.
The conference, held April 12-15, included a panel discussion of the California Department of Education’s Office of School Transportation staff. The state’s six bus driver training program specialists, including current CASTO President Dano Rybar, explained their roles and areas of jurisdiction. Bob Austin, a former CASTO president, encouraged attendees to expand their knowledge with training opportunities throughout the year, but he sympathized with their situation. "A lot of districts are just not providing the money for this kind of thing now," he said.
However, numerous workshops were available to educate CASTO attendees. Alexandra Robinson, director of transportation services at San Diego Unified School District, spoke on identifying gaps and barriers to transporting special-needs students. She shared specific ways her operation has streamlined its special-needs service, such as limiting curb-to-curb stops. "More centrally located stops saves us money for the budget and is more effective," said Robinson.
In another seminar, Austin addressed the budget crisis head on, declaring that it will get worse. "We've managed to work ourselves into a corner," he said, citing common transportation missteps such as keeping old buses too long. But his confidence in state transportation officials ultimately shined through the daunting forecast. "It's going to force some changes, but you folks are good in finding ways to make it work," he said.
Other sessions encouraged conferees to refine current procedures. State training specialists Matt Sanchez and Dewrell Wesley lectured on two-way radio conduct and response. Kim Thomas, training supervisor for Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, led a workshop titled "Driving to Distraction," in which she warned of dangerous distractions that stem from common activities while driving, such as talking on a cell phone.
CASTO's annual conference drew 211 association members, and 69 vendors displayed their products at the trade show. Next year’s conference will be held in Monterey, Calif.
Ontario increases funding for student transportation
TORONTO — The Ontario Ministry of Education has announced a $20 million funding increase for school boards to help cover costs of student transportation. According to Deputy Premier and Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer, the funding comes in response to growing cost pressures of providing school bus services.
The increase responds to specific recommendations made by the Education Equality Task Force, which released a study of student funding issues in the province last December. The money represents a 3.32 percent increase in total transportation funding and, coupled with another $20 million allotted after the initial release of the study, makes up half of the total dollars recommended by the task force.
“We all want Ontario’s children to arrive in school safely and ready to learn,” said Witmer. “This investment will allow school boards to ensure students continue to receive safe and efficient transportation services.”
Southern California transit agency avoids tripping over school service
WEST COVINA, Calif. — Before September 2002, Foothill Transit was caught in a "gray area" regarding Federal Transit Administration (FTA) regulations. The agency found itself providing a tripper service for five local schools — essentially running buses just for students.
"Nobody around here really knows how we got involved with this," says Tom Mullen, Foothill's public information officer. "It's something that we just kind of inherited."
But Foothill did know that it wanted out of the predicament. Schools would often call the day before an early release and ask if the buses could change their schedules accordingly. "Then we're faced with the choice of either running the buses as published — as we're required to — and run empty buses, or we make this change," says Mullen. "Because realistically, no one is riding the lines anyway except for these school kids."
Under FTA rules, transit agencies cannot engage in bus operations that are exclusively for the transportation of students and thereby competing with school bus contractors. But when Foothill would have to alter its posted schedules without a chance to put out a flyer, it was clear that the schools were getting special treatment.
At the time of a major service increase last September, Foothill pinpointed its escape from the borderline service. The agency plotted four new lines that would continue serving the schools while including the surrounding area. The school routes became parts of larger lines that other members of the public could take advantage of. Foothill made it clear that these schedules were etched in stone, and there would be no last-minute adjustments.
Though the new policy fit Foothill’s needs, Mullen says the agency worried about how the schools would react. As it turned out, they were generally appreciative to still be included in the service. "All of us were pleasantly surprised by their reaction," says Mullen. "Pretty much every person I talked to from the schools understood why we needed to make the change."
Steve Boyd, assistant principal at El Roble Intermediate School in Claremont, Calif., says the service adjustment has worked out well for his students. "If we have an early release, the kids need to find another route home — which they can do," he says. "There are three different Foothill routes that are within three blocks of us."
With school budgets across the country in a state of deterioration and pupil transportation often among the first things to be cut, Mullen says that more and more transit agencies will face a situation similar to Foothill’s. "Public transit needs to be prepared for those kinds of demands and work schools into their regular schedules rather than get into a bad situation that's hard to get out of," he says.
UMTRI offers best practices on wheelchair transportation
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) has developed a brochure of best practices for transporting passengers seated in wheelchairs.
The four-page document, titled “Ride Safe,” outlines the steps that should be taken to safely secure the passenger and wheelchair in a van or bus. Also included are lists of wheelchair providers, restraint manufacturers and relevant organizations as well as a glossary of wheelchair transportation terms.
The UMTRI states at the beginning of the brochure that it is generally safest to transfer passengers to a vehicle seat. But when transferring is not possible or the rider needs the support of the wheelchair system, it breaks the process into three steps: starting with the right equipment, securing the wheelchair and restraining the rider.
The UMTRI recommends that wheelchairs used in vehicle transportation have a transit option, meaning they are crash tested and have identifiable securement points for tiedown straps.
The brochure also emphasizes the importance of restraining the passenger with a crash-tested lap and shoulder belt or child restraint harness, because postural support belts on the wheelchair are usually not strong enough to withstand a crash.
For copies of the brochure, contact the UMTRI via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone at (734) 764-2171 or fax at (734) 936-1081. The information is also available online at www.travelsafer.org.
Cat begins production of C7 engines
MOSSVILLE, Ill. — Caterpillar Inc. has begun production of its mid-range C7 engine with ACERT™ (advanced combustion emission reduction technology) for the school bus market. The C7 replaces Cat’s 3126E product and provides a full range of ratings from 190 to 330 hp and from 520 to 860 lb.-ft. of torque.
In addition to the multiple injection and improved air systems, the C7 features a HEUI™ (hydraulically actuated, electronically controlled unit injection) fuel system, electronic wastegate control and a single-piece low-friction piston for ratings above 210 hp.
ACERT is an efficient combustion process that uses sophisticated algorithms to identify optimal settings for the lowest possible nitrogen oxide emissions. The system recovers exhaust energy, which improves fuel economy and lowers in-cylinder combustion temperatures to improve emissions.
Mid-range diesel engines developed by International Truck and Engine Corp. and Cummins Inc. employ cooled exhaust gas recirculation to meet federal emissions standards.