As the 1999-2000 school year recedes further and further in our rear-view mirrors, we need to prepare for the challenges of the coming school year. One of those challenges will be finding more dollars for the transportation budget. Easier said than done, I know. Transportation is often lumped in the same category as food services, facilities and maintenance when it comes to budget priorities. Understandably, school administrators and school boards want to put as much money as possible in the classroom. Often, they’re driven by community pressure to improve test scores.
Numbers can be misleading
That’s how we measure our successes — and failures — these days, by sitting down with a computer and crunching numbers. Well, I have a number for the bean counters that’s probably not very impressive, but speaks volumes about the effects of the lack of funding for transportation. Three. That’s how many children were killed in the March 28 train-school bus crash at the Tennessee-Georgia border. We sent Associate Editor Sandra Matke to the site within hours of the tragedy to investigate how such a thing could have happened, with all the training on rail crossing safety that’s offered these days (Sandra’s article, “Sudden Death in Murray County,” begins on pg. 34). What Sandra discovered during her three-day visit was that the driver of the school bus, Rhonda Cloer, didn’t attend the rail crossing training session that was offered a month before the crash. Her employer, Murray County (Ga.) Schools, made attendance of the training session voluntary — because it couldn’t pay drivers for their time. The transportation director said the budget only allows for two paid in-service training programs per year. What’s worse, some school districts don't pay drivers for any kind of training. Those districts need to rethink their risk management strategies. Had Cloer attended that “optional” session, the importance of “stopping, looking and listening” might have been significantly reinforced. We might not be mourning the deaths of three children, one of whom died in her father’s arms. All for an hour’s pay. Now the school district faces immeasurable liability exposure as lawsuits are filed by the families of the injured and the dead. Millions of dollars in settlements and/or court judgments will be expended. Worst of all, nobody wins.
Put a price on safety
In addition to lobbying for more money for driver training, school bus operators need to demand more money for driver wages. According to our annual survey of contractors, the driver shortage is showing no signs of slowing down (see “Driver Shortage Shows No Signs of Easing,” beginning on pg. 54). About 80 percent of the survey respondents said they had at least a moderate shortage. And many said they were handcuffed by insufficient rate increases from school districts. As a result, contractors are being forced to conscript office staff and mechanics to drive buses. About three of five respondents said they regularly send these non-drivers out to cover routes. This practice — common to school district and contractor operations around the country — reduces the safety cushion that underlies a sound transportation program. We only have to look back at the 1995 tragedy in Fox River Grove, Ill., for an example of this potential hazard. In that case, a safety supervisor was subbing on an unfamiliar route and apparently was not aware that her bus would not clear the tracks at a busy intersection. A commuter train rammed the back of the bus, resulting in the deaths of seven students. Another number for the bean counters.