By the time you’re reading this issue of SCHOOL BUS FLEET, you’ve either been “living” change or anticipating it. The comments I’ve heard at summer conferences, the stories in newspaper and trade journals, and media and personal reports from all over the country testify to budget cuts that school transportation professionals have already experienced, or that loom large in an uncertain economy.
The irony of my article’s title — unless you regard stimulus money as evidence that there is a Santa Claus who will be operating as usual come December — may be subtle. But I’m writing to offer straight-forward advice. Thoughtful analysis now can diminish the likelihood that adjustments you’re making to cut, cut, cut will result in even more reduction in resources — both in terms of time and money — and, worse yet, in a negative impact on student safety and achievement. If the slicing and dicing that’s been part of the last several months has given way to a somewhat calmer October, it’s time to examine those changes, assess the potential for trouble and make adjustments where you can.
The potential for legal challenges is likely to be most significant in the areas of people changes, training gaps, operational and service level reductions, and special-needs transportation adjustments.
Thinking twice about people and training
Where you’ve already participated in layoff or other tough employment decisions, a sound process that uses objective criteria for these moves should serve you well. Other “people issues” on the list — reduction of staff members’ hours (or, in some cases, drastic elimination of attendants), combining of positions, training challenges — should be reviewed: adjustments are still possible if your self-audit causes you concern. Here are some areas to double-check:
These “Fast Facts” are basic, but they’re actually at the core of many of the recent challenges reported in case law.
Operational and service level reductions: checking them twice
A significant number of lawsuits have developed when bus routes are cut or altered without addressing foreseeable safety implications. I know you’ve debated pros and cons of various strategies to reduce numbers of buses and miles traveled. Be sure you’ve taken all available steps to reduce the problems associated with remaining “cons.” Here are some lessons from court cases and headlines that hint at the possibility of legal challenge:
Special-needs transportation: the ‘naughty and the nice’
Complaints about failure to provide a free appropriate public education are a likely outgrowth of budget cuts if districts fail to heed the basic principle that transportation may be necessary for students with special needs even where it’s not available to their non-disabled peers. Students with special needs must continue to receive a case-by-case determination typically made by the IEP team about the necessity for transportation as a related service. Of even more concern, however, is an already growing body of cases that demonstrate how real harm to students can result from failure to take necessary steps to prevent foreseeable harm. Here are some checkpoints to consider:
The need to rethink
Author Ram Charan recognized in his new book Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty that, “You won’t always have time to answer every question and look at things from every angle.” Instead, “You may have to reverse earlier decisions that no longer make sense.” Just as your responsibilities, obligations and dilemmas are fluid in this time of change, so too you must be ready to review and respond accordingly as time goes on. The way to avoid unintended consequences of budget cuts is to monitor the decisions already made at every chance you get.
Peggy Burns is an attorney and consultant, and owner of Education Compliance Group Inc. (www.educationcompliancegroup.com). She is the editor of Legal Routes and developer of four video training programs: “The Road to Compliance for Special Needs Drivers,” “Putting the Brakes on Harassment,” “Steering Clear of Liability,” and “Confidential Records.” Peggy can be reached at (888) 604-6141 or [email protected].