Three years ago, the Texas legislature passed only the second school bus lap/shoulder belt bill in the nation's history. The law is now in effect and at least some money is available to school districts, though the Texas Education Agency still must work out details on how to distribute the funds.
The Legislative Budget Board sent TEA its approval to open up to schools the reimbursement funds which included priorities taken from a Texas Transportation Institute report submitted earlier this summer on how to best implement the program statewide. These include equipping smaller school buses and motorcoaches with lap/shoulder belts because those vehicles stand to see the biggest safety benefit from the occupant restraints. Also, lap/shoulder belts are especially needed in the counties of Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Hildago, Montgomery and Travis as they have the highest number of serious bus crashes on high-speed roads and they have the highest number of average pupil density.
The Legislative Budget Board also called on TEA to implement TTI's recommendations that districts develop a plan for addressing any dimished capacity on school bus "so as not to force students into alternative (and less safe, regardless of seat belt availability) transportation." The state also wants district training programs for drivers and students on correct lap/shoulder belt usage and emergency evacuation procedures as well as written policies on belt use and enforcement.
The grant money is limited to the incremental cost of purchasing new buses equipped with the lap/shoulder systems. But the districts still little or no clue on how to apply for the reimbursement funds. TEA spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe said there is no public time frame for releasing the money but added that it would occur "as quickly as possible."
"We don't have all the detail worked out yet about how schools will apply," she said.
Industry estimates indicate that the real-world costs of installing lap-shoulder belts on school buses could result in cost increases of about $6,000 to $11,000 per new vehicle.The Texas law is voluntary if school districts apply for the seat belt reimbursement funds from the TEA. Ratcliffe confirmed that if school districts decided to use local money for regular school bus replacement that they will be exempt from following the guidelines. That was not the intent of the original bill, according to the offices of a state Sen. Eddie Lucio. A spokesman said Lucio wanted to see school districts purchase school buses equipped with seat belts as long as there was state money available to reimburse them for the added costs. If there no such money exists, then school districts would not be required to purchase these school buses.
"The state of Texas made its decision on the safety issues and endorsed three-point safety belts on school buses. That part is unequivocal," said a spokesman for Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., of Brownsville, adding that the chances of fully-funding school buses with seat belt remains very high. "The issue has come down to the money. As long as there is money, it’s a mandate on schools to buy them.”
Confusion over "voluntary" seat belts appears to have arisen over the term "grant funds," which Sen. Lucio's office explained is the only way the legislature could reimburse schools without an ongoing, full-time program. In essence, the seat belt reimbursement funds are being set up as a pilot program to gauge their effectiveness. But Ratcliffe at TEA added that the direction from Legislative Budget Board states otherwise
TEA received approval last week from the Legislative Budget Board to begin distributing the grant funds to the tune of $3.6 million. The remaining $6.4 million of the original $10 million fund passed by the General Assembly in 2007 will likely be addressed in a supplemental budget bill when the biennial legislative session resume in January.
Gov. Rick Perry ordered 5 percent budget cuts across all state programs in an effort to close an $18 billion deficit. And, those cuts could increase to another 10 percent next year. Lucio's spokesman said TEA attempted to apply part of the $10 million for seat belts, namely the aforementioned $6.4 million, to fill other budget cuts, despite the fact that the Legislative Budget Board specifically stated that the funds could only be used for seat belts.
TEA's Radcliffe responded that the school bus seat belt fund was simply one of the programs listed by Gov. Perry that were eligible for cuts, and she could not comment on any additional funding early next year as that would be an issue for the legislature to resolve.Meanwhile, executives at the Legislative Budget Board also signed off on a state-wide implementation plan for school bus lap/shoulder belts first developed earlier this year by the Texas Transportation Institute. Despite being denoted as a "confidential draft," a Legislative Budget Board spokesperson confirmed the report was approved for public consumption. It was submitted to the Legislative Budget Board in June and staff recommendations were added to the plan over the summer. TEA will be using that document to give school districts guidance.
“Once everything goes into place, rules can be issued and information put out," she added. "It’s just right now we’re in that waiting period.”