New Orleans' unique system of charter schools does not have centralized busing. Each school is in charge of finding bus services for students, and those services are almost always contracted out to private bus companies. After a city investigation revealed a host of safety concerns around the city’s privately operated school buses, the city council is stepping in to regulate them, similar to the way the city regulates taxis and limos.
WWNO’s Jess Clark went to City Hall to speak with Jennifer Cecil, director of permitting and licensing for the city.
Q: Last year the city did an investigation into school bus safety after an employee raised concerns about buses with missing license plates and improper break tags. What did you find?
In collaboration with the New Orleans police department's traffic division and the Department of Public Works, we found that in addition to the obvious issues like broken windows that we could see from the exterior, once we gained access into the buses we found many of these vehicles were not registered, many of the seats were not properly fastened to the body of the bus. There were safety latches removed so that emergency exits were inoperable. The rear of one bus was padlocked shut, an escape hatch was screwed closed. And some of the body repair appeared to have been done in a slapshod way.
Q: How was this able to happen?
There was a lot of incredulity - how could this be? It seems so strange and so wrong that anyone would say put a child on a bus where the seat could fall off or the bus wasn't insured. But at the same time with all of these charter schools and all these new charter schools coming in, each of their leaders is trying to balance a budget. Each of their operation managers is trying to make sure that medicines are appropriately dispersed, that reading interventions take place, that food service is delivered, and that students arrive at the school and leave the school. Because it's the last place you look. Because everyone sees a yellow bus and thinks 'oh it's a school bus, it must be safe.'
Q: Why is this an issue that the city council is regulating and not the parish school board?
I think biggest reason is that it's a capacity issue. It's only in the last year that the Orleans Parish School Board took over the management of this broad swath of charter schools. And in building that first year of capacity it doesn't make a lot of sense for them to create a completely new inspection staff that would be identical to what we're providing for other for-hire vehicles throughout the city. And additionally, because it's not the school board's own transportation. They're not the owners of the buses. These are private companies that need to be regulated the same way as the rest of private industry.
Q: How are you going to regulate the buses? Are you going to set up a new permitting system to check registration?
Yes. We are requiring all school buses to obtain a certificate of public necessity and convenience, like every other for-hire vehicle - any other charter bus, taxi, or limo. We're licesning them under the same scheme, with the exception that the buses will be required to go through two inspections a year instead of one, and to have specialized equipment inspected by us as well, like stop arms and safety hatches. The new permitting process goes into effect for the 2019-2020 school year.
Q: You all created this legislation in collaboration with the Orleans Parish School Board. Can you talk about what their role is going to be going forward?
The school board is taking many proactive steps going forward. In the immediate future, they're providing training from the state police to school leaders and operations managers to help them spot major malfunctions of buses and look out for the safety of their students.
Support for WWNO's Education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.