Audits performed over an eight-year period discovered 10 school bus drivers across the Keystone State who should have been disqualified from their positions because of criminal convictions and nearly five dozen school districts that were deficient in keeping driver records.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's office investigated a total of 1,323 driver records from 58 school districts in 28 counties, with the first audits beginning in July 2008 and the most recent audits concluding in July 2016. Over that time frame, a the audits found a total of 724 deficiencies, including improper record keeping that allowed the 10 ineligible drivers behind the wheel and resulted in an underpayment of $1.5 million to a school district for 723,000 unreported miles. DePasquale said issues affected urban, suburban and rural districts, alike.
There are about 45,000 certified school bus drivers employed by both school districts and contrators operating across Pennsylvania each school day. The audits only look at a sampling of driver records in certain school districts, charter schools and other educational programs, a spokeswoman for DePasquale explained. Also included in the audits are school governance, finances, safety and academic performance.
Most troubling to DePasquale was what he called the "outrageous" discovery of bus drivers with criminal records who were still behind the wheel of school buses. He said in most cases the school districts or bus contractor employers have since fired the employees but that his office is following up individually to ensure compliance.
In addition to criminal background checks, state law requires all school districts to document valid driver's licenses with the school bus "S" endorsement, annual physical exams, federal criminal history records, Pennsylvania Child Abuse History Clearance, and an arrest and conviction report.
"The only way to prevent the wrong people from transporting students is for school districts to make sure all drivers are properly vetted to ensure they qualify to transport and interact with students," said DePasquale during a Jan. 30 news conference.
He explained that many school districts erroneously think it's the bus contractor's responsibility to conduct driver background checks.
"Let me be very clear: It is the responsibility of the schools to make sure all drivers have the appropriate qualifications and background clearances to interact with students," he said, citing Pennsylvania Public School Code. "School officials are also charged with maintaining the driver documentation in school files.
"School district administrators: These are your students; you are responsible for their safety."
The School District of Lancaster County was cited as among the most egregious cases, with 16 percent of its school bus driver corps failing to meet at least one employment requirement. Five of those 21 drivers, DePasquale said, had criminal records, and one driver had a conviction that required an "absolute ban on employment." Examples of these types of disqualifying crimes range from homicide to stalking, rape to kidnapping, indecent exposure to endangering the welfare of a child.
That driver was not terminated until last October, the audit found.
Three other Lancaster County drivers, all employees of Shultz Transportation, had previous convictions that were supposed to have barred them from any school employment for the next four to seven years, based upon the state's "look-back period" that requires 10 years to pass between a specific type of conviction and renewed eligibility for employment. Those drivers were also terminated in October.
Other infractions the audit uncovered in Lancaster County included an invalid driver’s license and no records of completing the school bus driver skills and safety training or passing a physical. Another driver's file lacked state and federal criminal history and the official child abuse clearance statement.
The report also singled out three other school districts that employed drivers with felony convictions ranging from aggravated assault to drug possession to arson.
The state auditor's office can only offer recommendations to fix compliance issues and holds no enforcement authority, the auditor's spokeswoman added.