Legislation designed to ensure safety of students traveling on school buses heads to governor’s desk

The final legislative piece of a three-bill package designed to ensure the safety of New Jersey students traveling on school buses is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill (S-3851), which Senators Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic) and Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) sponsored, will create the Office of School Bus Safety in the Department of Education to monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities.

Assemblymembers Lisa Swain, Christopher Tully and Daniel Benson sponsored the legislation (A-5814) in the lower house.

The bill, which the full Senate and Assembly approved during Monday’s voting session, makes the Office of School Bus Safety responsible for:

  • Reviewing a school bus driver’s information collected by the Commissioner of Education for a criminal history check or check for alcohol and drug-related motor vehicle violations pursuant to current statute.
  • Obtaining statements of assurance from school districts or contractors that all training certifications for school bus drivers from employers are complete.
  • Assisting in the development of a student information card.
  • Reviewing statements provided by a board of education or contractor that verify a school bus driver, whose bus driver’s license is suspended or revoked, no longer operates a school bus for the board or contractor.
  • Coordinating with the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Department of Law and Public Safety on the sharing of information regarding matters related to school bus safety.
  • Maintaining a list of persons debarred from bidding on pupil transportation contracts.
  • Rendering a decision as to whether a person shall be debarred from bidding on a pupil transportation contract.
  • Collecting and reviewing the name, address, and contact information of school bus contractors and the owner or school bus contracting companies.
  • Determining if a board of education or contractor has failed to comply with the provisions of state statute.
  • Reviewing and recommending changes to the commissioner of the rules and regulations governing school bus safety.
  • Providing an annual report to the Commissioner of Education.
  • Administering any other duties the Commissioner of Education deems appropriate to ensure the safety of school buses for students.

In November, Murphy signed into law two others bills of the Lagana-Diegnan package, both of which are designed to prevent rogue private bus companies from being awarded school busing contracts, obstruct the hiring of unqualified individuals as drivers, and increase transparency.

“These laws will help protect our children on their way to and from school,” said Diegnan, who commended Lagana for sponsoring the much-needed legislation. “Bus companies that don’t follow the rules should not be protected. Districts are now empowered to deny contracts to bad actors.”

In a joint statement, Tully, Swain and Benson said a lack of communication between the different entities responsible for school bus oversight is making it easier for bad actors to take advantage of the system and win contracts they are not qualified to fulfill.

“The safety of New Jersey children must be our priority,” the Assemblymembers said. “Establishing an Office of School Bus Safety will help place oversight in the hands of experienced and dedicated professionals who will conduct thorough reviews, coordinate information on behalf of state officials, and make recommendations for important changes to improve our state’s school bus industry. This is how we keep our students safe.”

A monthslong USA TODAY NETOWRK New Jersey investigation, which commenced in 2020 following a bus crash in Mount Olive that claimed the lives of a fifth grader and a teacher, prompted the bill package.

The investigation examined loopholes in incorporation, inspection, bidding, and judicial laws that have allowed some private school bus contractors to put unlicensed drivers and criminals behind the wheel of a school bus.

The network’s reporting also 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 (S-3849) of the Lagana-Diegnan package Murphy signed into law 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 (S-3852) of the Lagana-Diegnan package Murphy signed into law 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, 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.

Those regulations are in addition to a quartet of bills Diegnan sponsored that the governor signed into law three years ago.

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.”

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