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Yellow or Not, Uniform Minimum Standards Are Needed

When I began writing for School Transportation News two decades ago, the first companies dedicated to offering a student-focused alternative to the yellow school bus were new to the scene. A school bus driver shortage plagued school districts, just as it does now, but it was not nearly as bad as what we are currently experiencing.

The driving force for a new type of service was the growing expense and inefficiency of operating school buses in certain areas and for certain student populations. It didn’t make sense then and even more so today to operate a small 15-passenger bus, not to mention a full size one, across the county or into the neighboring district to pick up a student at a homeless shelter or transport another student with disabilities to a program.

The number of these companies on the market have skyrocketed. And with that, these organizations are looking for any competitive edge they can muster.The issue culminated in November at the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs National Conference in Frisco, Texas, with perhaps one of the most insightful advisements to the industry in recent memory. Showing the leadership that has made her an industry icon, tenured faculty member Linda Bluth advised the audience during a Nov. 11 general session on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and transportation as a related-service that the National Congress on Stu-dent Transportation (NCST) must take up the issue and set standards that these alt transportation providers are all beholden to. After all, she noted, nowhere in the IDEA is school bus mentioned, only transportation.

There is a place for these companies to supplement the work of school buses, Bluth added. These companies want to do the right thing, and often they perform very well. But they are not perfect, just as traditional school bus professionals aren’t. However, these newer companies are under an intense microscope, and they need to ensure everything they do is above board and steeped in industry best-practices. The challenge is that the “regulation” of these services is all over the map. They all should be meeting minimum requirements set by school district customers, but those requirements can differ from location to location. Some states have procedures in place and can always go above and beyond any guideline. But most have nothing.

Public utility companies in cities and counties nationwide are tasked with overseeing transportation network companies, or TNCs, but those regulations also vary. These companies, and many of their alternative transportation counterparts, can only require so much of “gig workers” who are being subcontracted to provide these services.

The training can be rudimentary in comparison to applicants seeking a commercial driver’s license. One could argue that driving a sedan is not nearly as hard as driving a school bus. But understanding the intricacies of operating a 15-ton school bus with 60 students onboard invariably creates a better overall driver. TNCs and often alternative transportation companies don’t own the vehicles, so they can’t inspect them to the level school buses are. Most requirements are self-reported by the vehicle driver and owner, including training. No one from a PUC, for example, is visiting these gig workers to physically inspect their vehicles or to test their proficiency on what they were supposably trained on.

NCST has previously addressed guidelines for non-yellow vehicles and recommended the completion and filing of uniform records and reports, but earlier deliberations largely centered on school-district or Head Start provided service, the latter providing federal requirements to draw from.

Yesterday’s industry leaders could not forsee how the industry would evolve. A clear connection today is necessary to provide overarching guidance to both the companies and the school districts who are considering contracting with them.

The industry missed an opportunity when COVID-19 postponed the Congress until May 2025. That date is now only two years away. The industry shouldn’t miss another opportunity, then solely blame TNCs and alternative transportation companies when tragedy strikes. We hope that never happens, but this industry is built on training and preparing for the worst-case scenario.And in a worst-case scenario, school districts that don’t think of, document and demand the finest details when working with alternative transportation or TNC companies could shoulder as much if not more blame in both the courts of public opinion and a jury of its peers.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the January 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

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