Fewer dollars for school bus seat belts

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Six years have passed since the day Brad Brown sat in a hospital waiting room, hoping to hear any news of his daughter, Ashley. One by one, crews brought in members of her high school girls soccer team, many badly hurt.

“I waited for Ashley there to find her in whatever shape she was in,” Brown said. “I next saw Ashley at the funeral home.”

A bus carrying the 16-year-old and her Westbrook High teammates from Beaumont to a tournament had skidded off a rainy highway and rolled over just hours before. Ashley and another girl, Alicia Bonura, died that day.

“My daughter left her seat and was killed on impact,” Brown told KXAN in a recent interview.

For Steve Forman, the news was slightly better. His daughter, Allison, was one of those who survived. But she suffered severe injuries.

“She was pinned under the bus,” Forman said. “Her left arm was crushed.”

Out of the tragedy, the two fathers joined other parents to push a law requiring lap-shoulder belts – like the kind in personal vehicles - on all new school buses in Texas.

The very next year after the accident, the state passed the law, which would later go into effect Sept. 1, 2010. The Legislature set aside $10 million to reimburse schools for buying new buses with those belts. Officials estimated that amount would strap in about 70,000 students in about 1,900 buses.

Check out Josh's Political Blog for an in-depth look at that accident and the process behind this investigation.

Funding problems

But the law went on the books just as Texas was facing one of its worst budget shortfalls ever. Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the seat belt bill into law, directed all state agencies to find ways to cut spending. In response, the Texas Education Agency slashed the School Bus Seat Belt Program from $10 million to $2.5 million.

And that meant requiring seat belts on new buses became contingent on state funding. If the money was available, districts could apply for the reimbursement of the seat belt cost only - not the entire cost of the bus.

"The language in the law simply meant that those districts that did not receive the state grant funds were not required to purchase seat belts for new buses," Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman, told KXAN. "Those that received the state grant were required to comply."

Outfitting buses with belts can be expensive, a challenge for many cash-strapped districts. The Austin Independent School District said a new school bus alone usually costs $60,000 to $70,000. Adding lap-shoulder belts is about $6,500 extra.

Twelve school districts have applied for the money: Academy of Careers & Technologies, Austin ISD, Cleveland ISD, Dayton ISD, Diboll ISD, Pettus ISD, Dallas County, Gause ISD, Houston ISD, Montgomery ISD, North Forest ISD, and South Texas ISD.

TEA said some withdrew their applications when they learned the money would only reimburse the cost of the seat belts. Other districts did not submit complete paperwork, which TEA noted with descriptions like: “calculations on Sched. 4B incorrect,” “assurances and certifications (not),” “minimal training info,” and “request for bus cost.”

“Some of the applicants did not meet all of the requirements of the program, such as the need for the board to adopt a written policy related to the use of seat belts,” said TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.

As a result, only four districts – including the Austin district – received money – a total of $416,582. In the end, $2,083,418 million remained in the fund.

Where the grant money went

Dallas County Schools - $250,276 Austin ISD  - $95,550 South Texas ISD $ 63,380 Pettus ISD  - $7,376 Total - $416,582

Ironically, that total was nearly as much as the amount appropriated by the Legislature to the Texas Transportation Institute - $400,000 - to conduct a feasibility study on the safest and most cost-effective way to implement the program.

TEA moves the money

Ratcliffe said districts were called "so TEA staff could explain why the applications were incomplete or unacceptable."

"This provided them with individualized information so that local leaders could make a decision about whether to update and resubmit their application," she said. "We cannot issue a grant when an incomplete application is submitted."

Two grant cycles were offered in an effort to attract more districts to the program. The first round had an application deadline of Nov. 19, 2010 and the second round had an application deadline of Feb. 28, 20111.

Still, some districts KXAN spoke with were unaware their paperwork was “incomplete,” saying they would have appreciated TEA notifying them in order to submit remaining, necessary documents – and possibly receive funding. TEA has no record of any such notification.

“When you find out why, let me know,” the Montgomery school district transportation director told KXAN.

In the end, TEA then rolled the nearly $2 million of the remaining money allocated for seat belts into an account for programs under the heading “Commissioner's Priorities.”

Examples of those priorities included:

Fine Arts - $376,166 - Funding to the Center for Educator Development in Fine Arts to competitively award grants to enable districts to continue to provide students with the opportunity to participate in high-quality fine arts programs. Funds from these grants could be utilized to purchase supplemental instructional materials including play scripts, sheet music, instruments, equipment, costumes and props. Early Childhood SRCS Data Collection - $1,297,000 - Grant to an education service center to competitively bid a process to continue the collection of Kindergarten data as a prerequisite to the continued development of the State Certification Readiness System. Early Childhood SRI Specialists - $74,072 - Funding to the 20education service centers to fund School Readiness Integration Specialists at 50 percent to continue the implementation of and technical assistance support for “Texas School Ready!” at current TSR sites across the state. Student Success Initiative - $250,000. Grant to ESC 20 to continue implementation of the English Language Proficiency Standards.

“The commissioner reallocated the money to program areas identified in our strategic plan as priorities,” said Culbertson. “Thus the money was used to benefit students and schools in areas of identified need.”

That explanation infuriated Forman, the father one one of the girls injured in the Westbrook High bus wreck.

“I think that's criminal, and that's a misappropriation of taxpayer funds,” he said.

A legal accounting move

Regardless, moving certain amounts of funds to other programs is legal, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

“Just as with any other agency, TEA is permitted to transfer up to 12.5 percent from one appropriation item to another,” said LBB spokesman John Barton. “The seat belt funding was included in a strategy that totaled $52.2 million, so those transfers are permissible.”

Buses without belts

Now, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, the author of the legislation dubbed "the Alicia and Ashley Law" - is demanding TEA reconsider the funding after finding out at least two of the districts that did not receive funding eventually ended up buying buses without belts.

The transportation director at Dayton ISD said the district purchased 13 buses since applying for but not receiving the state funding. Only three had seat belts.

Houston ISD, which has the largest fleet in the state, purchased 27 buses since that time. A spokeswoman said none of those have seat belts.

Lucio say those buses need the belts.

“I would like to see those school districts retrofit those buses and then have the commissioner insure that they will get reimbursed as soon as there's money in the fund,” said Lucio, who added that he intends to ask the Legislature to provide money for the program in the upcoming session. “TEA has bypassed the Legislature and the will of the people.”

Forman was much more blunt.

“If any one of those kids gets hurt, then I think it's the TEA's fault,” he said.

Brown said the program cannot succeed unless the needed resources are allocated. He's disappointed in how the law turned out.

"The program was established to fail," he said. "Why should we be surprised that it's failed?"

School bus injuries

The numbers suggest seat belts on buses work. During the 2010-2011 school year, TEA asked all Texas school districts for their bus accident statistics. There were 2,335 accidents reported. Of those, 435 students suffered injuries not wearing a seat belt, while only 20 were injured while wearing seat belts.

In Central Texas, the current school year has yielded a handful of bus accidents without seat belts: two accidents in the Del Valle ISD with 16 students suffering minor injuries and two accidents in the Manor ISD with nine minor injuries.

Forman said his daughter, Allison, is unable to bend her arm completely and properly move her fingers. Still, she graduated from Texas A&M last year, is currently working on a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Texas in Austin, and is also preparing for her wedding this fall.

Brown said he used to play the “what if” game, but he eventually stopped. He knows his work to see the seat belt program through is the best way to keep Ashley's memory alive. Both men will continue lobbying the legislature next session to make sure no parent has to experience their pain.

“No girl walked away from the accident unscarred,” Brown said. “Ashley didn't come home that day.”

Austin ISD sees success

Districts that received the state funding have had positive results. AISD received nearly $100,000 for belts on new 21 new buses.

“Safety comes first,” said Kris Hafezi, AISD transportation director. “We want our kids to wear seat belts.”

However, some school transportation officials across the state have shown concern for bus drivers dealing with the belts. They have suggested making sure children are strapped in can be a distraction or even a safety risk in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Hafezi said that has not been an issue at AISD, so far.

"That's the only challenge,” he said, pointing out a special belt cutter to easily break through the strap. “Other than that, there's no additional duty really for the driver."

Hafezi said the district – which operated nearly 500 buses daily - replaces a bus after it has been on the road 14 years. While the state money is currently dry, he plans to find other funding and continue adding belts to buses in the future.

“It has been only positive from our schools and the community,” he said.

Motorcoaches included

In addition to the school bus portion of the state law, legislators included motorcoaches in the mix. A year after the main facet of the bill went into effect, motorcoaches used by school districts in Texas were required to have lap-shoulder belts.

The vehicle involved in the Westbrook High accident was a motorcoach, chartered through a private company. The district, at times, used such buses on out-of-town trips. After the wreck, in addition to purchasing belts for their buses before the law went into effect, the Beaumont ISD chose not to use motorcoaches in the future.

Some critics of the law have said it fails to differentiate the two vehicles - school buses and motorcoaches. The argument is that not just addressing the motorcoach issue - which some have said was the real problem in that accident - has created an unnecessary cost to districts now outfitting school buses with belts.

Copyright 2014 KXAN TV. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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