Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday signed into law two bills designed to ensure the safety of New Jersey students traveling on school buses.
The legislation, which Senators Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic) and Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) sponsored, will help prevent rogue private bus companies from being awarded school busing contracts.
The new laws are also designed to obstruct the hiring of unqualified individuals as drivers and increase transparency.
“I must commend Senator Lagana for sponsoring this needed legislation,” said Diegnan, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
“The bills go a long way in protecting our children on their way to and from school. Bus companies that don’t follow the rules should not be protected. Districts are now empowered to deny contracts to bad actors.”
The new legislation comes less than three years after Murphy signed into law four bills Diegnan sponsored to improve bus safety and accident response and make bus drivers and companies more accountable.
A monthslong USA TODAY NETOWRK New Jersey investigation prompted the most recent legislation.
The network’s reporting found, among other improprieties, some private school bus operators facing sanctions circumvented state law, shifting ownership to a family member, or changing the name of their company to continue winning bids for taxpayer-funded contracts worth millions.
“Far too often, there are cases where bus companies have been cited for poor practices and then continue operating under different names,” Lagana said.
“Not only are these companies evading consequences, but they are continually putting our students at risk, and it is imperative that we immediately revise the current standards so these hiring practices cease to occur.”
The first bill Murphy signed into law Monday, S-3849, requires the State Department of Education to provide for debarment of school bus contractors for certain violations. The bill amends an existing law to require a bid for a pupil transportation contract to identify each person who has any ownership interest in the company submitting the bid. The bill also requires a board of education to review a debarment list prior to awarding a pupil transportation contract.
The second bill the governor signed into law Monday, S-3852, revises violations and fines for knowingly or unknowingly approving or assigning unauthorized individuals as school bus drivers. The fines range from $5,000 for a first offense to $15,000 for a third offense and each subsequent offense.
All school bus drivers, under state laws and regulations, must possess a valid commercial driver’s license with two additional endorsements to carry students as passengers. School bus drivers and bus aides are also required to undergo drug testing and criminal background checks. Drivers or aides with a criminal history or with known substance abuse issues are prohibited from driving school buses.
In addition to the two bills Murphy signed into law Monday, the governor three years ago signed into law four bills Diegnan sponsored, all of which followed a tragic Paramus school bus accident that killed a middle school student and a teacher.
Those four bills include:
• S-2852 – Requires school bus operators in the state to comply with federal regulations concerning safety, noise emissions, insurance, and drug testing.
• S-2853 – Requires all permanent and substitute school bus drivers and aides to undergo safety education programs twice annually.
• S-2850 – Requires a board of education or school bus contractor, upon receiving notice from the Department of Education that a school bus driver has had his or her bus driver license suspended or revoked, to verify to the Department of Education that the driver in question no longer operates for them a bus.
• S-2848 – Requires holders of a bus driver license to submit a medical report by a certified medical examiner. It also requires bus drivers over age 70 to submit proof of physical fitness annually, and those over age 75 to submit such proof every six months.
“We have to continue to work,” Diegnan said, “to make sure our children are safe when they get on a school bus.”