Audit urges better school bus safety monitoring
ALBANY — As New York children prepare to go back to school, state auditors are urging the state Department of Transportation to ensure the bus programs used by school districts have drivers who are qualified and properly trained.
Some 2.3 million New York kids rely on buses to get to and from schools each day.
According to an audit by the office of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, about one third of those children ride on school buses owned by their local districts. Another third get to school on contracted buses, while the remaining third rely on public transportation.
Statewide, about $3.4 billion is spent on pupil transportation services. State aid covers $2 billion of that sum.
State law directs each school district to certify that its school bus drivers have completed an established training program and to make an annual report on the effectiveness of the program. A total of 1,400 instructors provide the training to drivers, attendants and monitors, according to the auditors.
Each district contracts with the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute to provide the training.
An initial audit of the same programs, released by DiNapoli two years ago, found the institute’s school bus accident database was incomplete, failing to include information on all reportable accidents statewide.
In the new audit, the Department of Education bureaucrats were faulted for making only “limited progress” on the recommendations made in October 2020. Two key recommendations have not been implemented, while one was only partially implemented, leaving the agency fully compliant with the audit team’s fourth recommendation for improvement.
On the heels of the audit, state Sen. Mike Martucci, R-Orange County said the state should be providing more resources to the Education Department so it can have adequate staffing for those involved in school bus safety oversight.
“For years, the Legislature hasn’t met (the Education Department’s) budgetary request for staffing,” Martucci told CNHI. “But in this case, in the interest of pupil safety, something needs to change. Immediately filling the vacancies in this unit should be a department priority, and building out its ranks to ensure student safety should be a legislative priority.”
The Education Department, in responding to the audit, said it uses “multiple approaches” to provide information to transportation and school business officials and transportation contractors.
“This includes remote and in-person presentations at multiple conferences and seminars each year, maintaining an up-to-date web site, frequent communications with several umbrella groups for public transportation (both public and private sector) as well as participation in state-level advisory groups,” Sharon Cates-Williams, a deputy commissioner, at the agency, told DiNapoli’s office in a letter.
Cates-Williams also assured the audit team her agency is developing new systems that will allow for a more effective collection of transportation information, while tracking compliance and identifying risks. This is expected to result in prompt on-site inspections.
Regarding monitoring compliance with drug and alcohol policies, the Education Department is partnering with its “fellow regulatory colleagues to craft and endorse enhanced standards and consistency, wherever possible,” Cates-Williams said.