Some local educators are criticizing a new school bus seat belt law as an unfunded mandate as several area districts contemplate bus purchases.
Texas Senate Bill 693, which was passed in June and became law Sept. 1, 2017, requires districts to purchase new model school buses with three-point seat belts, but provides a means for districts to opt out.
The measure does not apply to buses a district already owns or on older bus models, records show.
Clear Creek Independent School District’s board of trustees recently took the opt-out option by voting that the district’s budget “does not permit the district to purchase a bus that is equipped with the seat belts required by this subsection,” according to records.
“The onus is on the state,” Trustee Charles Pond said. “They created this unfunded mandate that will cost us several hundred thousand and expect us to come up with it. It pits money against children. That’s a lousy way to do business.”
Trustees voted to opt out before agreeing to spend $1.75 million on 20 new buses as part of a plan to update the district’s aging fleet.
If trustees hadn’t voted to opt out, the purchase would have cost an additional $131,000, or a total of $1.87 million, said Paul McLarty, the district’s deputy superintendent of business and support services, during the Feb. 26 meeting.
Trustee Laura DuPont said that district officials needed to contact area legislators to speak against unfunded mandates in education.
More and more school boards across Galveston County are fiscally strained and forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include a state system that funnels local tax money to districts with small tax bases, less state funding and the loss of other funding avenues.
A recent joint report by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators said it was hard to put a definite dollar figure on how much unfunded mandates are costing districts across the state, but said the burden was heavy.
Galveston Superintendent Kelli Moulton said Wednesday the new seat belt law could be viewed as an unfunded mandate, but that she didn’t think her district would vote to opt out.
“In Galveston ISD, we are committed to the safety of all students and will work within our budget to add safety measures where needed,” Moulton said. “GISD Bond 2018 addresses several safety and security measures by choice.”
Galveston voters in May will decide on a $31 million bond referendum, which leaders envision as the first in a two-part plan to improve district facilities.
The May election will not raise the district’s tax rate, officials said.
Included in the May bond referendum is $2.5 million to purchase 20 buses and 15 fleet vehicles and another $410,000 to build a new bus wash and fuel canopy at the district’s transportation center, records show.
Seat belts add about $8,000 to $10,000 to the cost of each bus, Moulton said.
Galveston and Clear Creek school districts are the only ones in Galveston County currently contemplating bus purchases, but officials at other districts said recent measures could factor into future considerations.
“We haven’t discussed this piece of legislation extensively at this point since new buses aren’t on the radar right now, but it’s something we would consider when budgeting when the time comes to make those big purchases,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District.