A new school bus safety office designed to oversee and coordinate the protection of hundreds of thousands of students bused to schools awaits the governor’s signature.
The third in a series of recently adopted bills — spurred from an investigation by the USA TODAY Network New Jersey — passed both chambers of the state Legislature this week and would establish an Office of School Bus Safety within the state Department of Education.
The bill appropriates $200,000 to the Education Department to get this new office off the ground and for the commissioner to hire staff.
The purpose of this new office would be to “oversee the school busing industry and to coordinate enforcement and accountability among the department, school bus drivers and school bus contractors,” according to the bill.
Related: Gov. Phil Murphy signs school bus safety bills into law
SUBSCRIBERS ONLY: Read the entire investigation here
“Ensuring someone has a watchful eye on every step of the student transportation process is a critical step,” state Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen, said in a statement. “Enacting this legislation will allow our other reforms, which have already become law, to better keep our children secure as they travel to and from school.”
In November, Murphy signed into law two bills that create a debarment process for school bus contractors that violate state law and publicly identify them so school boards will know barred companies or individuals to be aware of before they award contracts. It also raises the fines for school bus contractors that put unqualified drivers behind the wheel, up to a $15,000 fine for third and subsequent offenses.
Schools:NJ hides info on how state school aid formula is figured, Shore districts tell judge
Freezing:NJ weather forecast predicts temperature could plunge to zero Friday
The three pieces of legislation were a direct result of the award-winning Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY Network investigation into “rogue operators” of the private school bus industry and identified a lackluster system that largely failed to catch or punish companies that repeatedly put children in danger on their way to or from school.
The bills were primarily sponsored by Lagana and Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, and Assembly members Dan Benson, D-Mercer, and Lisa Swain and Chris Tully, D-Bergen.
Among the problems this investigation revealed is that there was no dedicated entity to oversee school transportation, which strained communication between the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Department of Education about, for example, drivers’ suspended licenses or private carrier violations.
Two days after the Network published its investigation, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office charged the owners of F&A Transportation — one of the contractors highlighted in the investigation — with theft by deception and contract fraud for allegedly hiring unqualified bus drivers and failing to perform background checks.
The responsibilities of a new Office of School Bus Safety would be to work with the DOE and MVC to gather and track information related to school bus driver license revocations and inspection violations, and create and disseminate a list of debarred companies or individuals.
The staff in this office would make recommendations about who should be on the debarment list, and the decision would be made by the education commissioner, who also would be charged with staffing and organizing the school bus safety office.
Diegnan, who chairs the transportation committee, said this bill “brings accountability, focus and unity all in a department.”
“This bill really ties it all together,” he added.
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected]