PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Gov. Donald Carcieri signed a bill allowing the use of vehicles other than full-size yellow school buses to transport students.
Drafted as a cost-cutting measure, the legislation allows districts to use vans, sedans, SUVs and other vehicles to accommodate smaller groups of students.
"The cost of using that type of vehicle if you have a very small load of kids is, best guess, about half the price of what it costs for a yellow school bus," said Bill Legare, president of Valley Transportation Corp. in Woonsocket, R.I.
Legare points out that the legislation would provide flexibility for school transportation departments and contractors, particularly in transporting special-needs students or groups attending out-of-district programs and events.
Legare, who also manages a transportation company in Massachusetts, provided the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Roger Picard, with the regulations for use of such vehicles already in place in Massachusetts. "This program has been around for 25 to 30 years in Massachusetts, and it's been perfected," Legare said.
Full-size yellow buses have been the only vehicles allowed for transporting students in Rhode Island since the early 1970s, while many other New England states already allow other vehicles to be used.
"Some of the cities and towns are spending an exorbitant sum to transport these students to wherever their Individual Education Plan said they needed to go," said Edward Parker, coordinator of school bus safety at the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles. "You might have one particular community using one school bus to transport two children the entire day. One community was spending $50,000 a year, which put a significant strain on their transportation funds."
Drivers of these vehicles would not have to obtain a CDL. Instead, they would be required to obtain a license similar to a chauffer's license in the state, which requires a criminal background check but eliminates some of the specialized training and testing required for a regular school bus driver's license, an additional cost-savings for school bus operators.
The bill also establishes safety and equipment regulations for these vehicles, including equipping vehicles with first-aid kits, a fire extinguisher, a school bus sign and flashing signal lamps.
Legare expressed concerns about some provisions included in the bill, such as a requirement that all vehicles used to transport students be equipped with stopping arms, which he said would not fit on a car or van due to the dimensions of the equipment.
Still, Legare is pleased with the bill's success. "It could literally save every town in our state a significant amount of money, depending on how many students they transport," he said.