Thinking outside the bus

Thomas McMahon
Posted on December 3, 2013

Alternative fuels aren’t the only “alternative” that seems to be gaining interest in the pupil transportation industry.

Many school districts have turned to alternative transportation — vans, taxis and other small, non-school bus vehicles — to supplement traditional school bus service in certain situations.

A common example would be a homeless student who travels a long distance every day to attend his school of origin, meaning the last school he was enrolled in before becoming homeless. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, these students are entitled to free transportation to their school of origin, even if they now live in a different school district.

This can strain districts’ resources. As Washington state student transportation director Allan Jones explains, “Some of the districts just don’t have enough school buses to transport all the homeless students they have.”

Proponents of alternative transportation say that using small vehicles for these long trips with one or a few students cuts costs and allows more flexibility.

But in the school bus industry, which has built an unparalleled safety record with its thorough driver requirements and strict vehicle construction standards, the thought of stepping outside of the school bus is disconcerting for many.

That’s how Launi Harden initially felt about alternative transportation.
“At first, I didn’t look at it because it wasn’t the yellow school bus,” says Harden, the transportation director at Washington County School District in St. George, Utah.

But she says the downturn in the economy and high fuel prices forced districts to look at new ways to increase efficiency.

Washington County School District, which continues to run its own school bus fleet, has been contracting with American Logistics Co. (ALC) for about five years now. Through local transportation providers, ALC arranges for vans and sedans — all with magnetic signs for identification — to transport small numbers of special-needs students, some of whom travel up to 50 miles one way to school.

“It’s generally a quicker ride for the students, and it saves taxpayer dollars,” Harden says.

She notes that when considering alternative transportation through an outside vendor, it’s critical to look into the company, its safety practices and its reputation.

“Don’t just hire anyone,” Harden advises. “Make sure they have the same standards as you.”

ALC, for example, ensures that its drivers go through background checks, drug testing and training, meeting state and federal requirements as well as each district’s own specifications.

But, as you’ll see in our in-depth article on alternative transportation, some other companies apparently haven’t been as detailed in checking their drivers. In Chicago, an investigation found dozens of school cab drivers who had been arrested for or convicted of such crimes as aggravated battery, possession of a controlled substance and sexual assault on a teenager.

Another concern about alternative transportation is in record keeping. While states collect data specific to school bus crashes, the same can’t always be said for non-school bus vehicles that transport students. For example, in Pennsylvania, thousands of vans are used in student transportation, but crash statistics for them are not broken out from other crash statistics.

Alternative transportation is a contentious topic in the industry, but those on both sides of the issue would likely agree that crash numbers should be identified for non-school bus vehicles that transport students.

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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