Montana taxpayers spend nearly $75 million annually on transporting students to and from public K-12 schools.
To see whether Montanans are getting the safety and efficiency they are paying for, the Legislative Audit Division conducted a performance audit that was presented last week to a committee of lawmakers.
The audit should be a wake-up call for local school districts:
A check of all 1,435 school bus drivers reimbursed in the spring semester of 2012 found that nine of them had criminal records that would have disqualified them from being hired as public schoolteachers. More than 50 others had some other crime against property or persons on their record as checked by the Montana Department of Justice.
Legislative Auditor Tori Hunthausen said the schools with “hits” on the bus driver background checks were “all across the state.”
Every school district should be doing criminal background checks on every employee and on every contract employee who works with or around students.
Fortunately, Billings Public Schools already had a policy of doing fingerprinting for criminal background checks on all employees and many volunteers when Terry Bouck arrived here last summer. But the new superintendent wasn’t satisfied. School bus drivers employed by First Student weren’t fingerprinted; they had name-based background checks only. (The DOJ used name-based checks for the legislative audit.)
So Bouck and human resource director Jeana Lervick worked with First Student to start fingerprinting all new bus drivers hired this year. With First Student’s support, the district plans to fingerprint the rest of the 90 or so bus drivers this summer.
Meanwhile, Sodexo, the district’s food service contractor, already had fingerprint-based background checks completed for all its employees. Sodexo also provides meal service for Lockwood and Billings Catholic Schools.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure all our students are safe,” Lervick said this week.
Other audit recommendations dealt with efficiency and accuracy:
All school districts should use GPS devices to track and confirm mileage rather than relying on paper reports, the audit says. The audit turned up discrepancies in mileage reports.
The Legislature should review the state’s bus reimbursement schedule.
The schedule, which is set by law, pays considerably more per mile for larger buses (95 cents per mile for buses with capacity of 49 passengers or less, $1.80 for buses that can carry 80). The audit found that school districts were using larger buses even as they have been transporting fewer students in recent years.
The state pays half of that rate or half of the district’s transportation budget, whichever is less. Local taxpayers pay the rest.
“Large buses do not cost substantially more to purchase or operate,” the audit said. “The average Montana bus has increased in size by about 11 percent over the past 10 years while eligible ridership has actually decreased. Due to the size increase, the total state and county reimbursement increased $2 million for the 2011-2013 school year.”
Get seat belts for students
Lawmakers should review the reimbursement schedule for efficiency and safety incentives. There’s nothing now in state reimbursement that helps school districts that want buses with seat belts for students. Although school bus crashes are uncommon, Montanans know they do happen. Seat belts reduce bus capacity, thus requiring larger buses or more buses to transport the same number of students.
Lawmakers should revise the reimbursement schedule to provide a higher rate for buses equipped with student seat belts.
If seat belts save one student from a concussion, other serious injury or death, the higher bus costs will be worth the money.