Galveston County public school leaders planning to upgrade their bus fleets are being thrust into a national debate about whether those vehicles should be outfitted with seat belts.
The question is more complex than it might first appear and is complicated in Texas by both a new law and increasing acrimony between state lawmakers and public school officials over funding cuts for education and general dysfunction in the state’s funding system.
Frustration among school officials was apparent recently when Clear Creek ISD trustees discussed whether to spend an extra $131,000 for 20 new buses equipped with seat belts. The buses would have cost $1.87 million with the seat belts and about $1.75 million without them, officials said.
While the debate about whether big yellow school buses should be outfitted with seat belts has been underway for years, it has become topical in Texas because of Senate Bill 693, which became law Sept. 1, 2017, requiring districts buying new buses to order them with three-point-restraint seat belts.
But SB 693 is a law only in name because it allows school districts to opt out if they can’t afford to comply with its provisions. Laws with opt-out provisions aren’t laws, they are suggestions.
What the law did was force local school leaders to publicly opt-out of a law that, at least superficially, is meant to make children safer, but offered no financial assistance toward opting in.
That, of course, puts the burden and consequence of deciding on local officials, whether spending the money was feasible or not, and buys some no-cost public-relations insurance for state lawmakers.
In the context of school funding in general — more and more school boards are fiscally strained and forced into deficits under a system that siphons off local tax money and provides less and less state funding — it’s reasonable to assess this new law as an example of bottom-feeder politics; passing a bill to pass the buck.
That’s clearly how some Clear Creek trustees saw the law when they called it an unfunded mandate and opted out.
“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.”
It’s fair to ask, however, whether a $10,000 optional expense on buses ranging in price between $80,000 and $120,000 is really cost prohibitive for the district.
The answer may be that it depends.
There’s no clear consensus that children are any safer in large school buses with seat belts than they are in large school buses without them.
The National Association for Pupil Transportation, which represents school transportation directors, notes that the 485,000 buses that each school day carry more than 25 million children to and from campus and related activities in the United States overall have an excellent safety record without seat belts.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that between 2006 and 2015 only 54 of the 301 students killed in school bus crashes were in buses, the rest were pedestrians or passengers in other vehicles.
The administration’s official policy until 2015 was that students in large school buses were adequately protected and didn’t need seat belts. It has since reversed the policy to say that every school bus should have three-point seat belts, however.
There are other considerations for school administrators, as well. How do they decide which students ride in new buses with the seat belts and which ride in old buses without them? Is there liability in having a mixed fleet — some with these ostensibly important safety devices and some without?
Would districts have to add staff to ensure that every child is properly belted in before the bus rolls, and to help children unbuckle at each stop? How much time would that add to each route?
Maybe it’s time to outfit Texas school buses with seat belts, but if lawmakers are committed to that idea, they should commit some money toward getting it done.
• Michael A. Smith