CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. – A law proposed in Erie County aims to make all children attending Kindergarten through eighth grade better protected on the school bus.
The Erie County School Bus Safety Law was introduced by County Legislator Patrick Burke last November, and is making its way towards a vote. It would require a school bus monitor on every public and private school bus that transports children in grades K-8.
“Children are in school and have a supervisor at all times. Where ever they go throughout the school day they have a supervisor, except when they’re on a school bus where you could have up to 70 children with no supervision,” said Legislator Patrick Burke.
Proposed law comes days after tragic death in Springville
Burke’s legislation was submitted days after a 7-year-old Springville Elementary student was struck and killed by the very school bus she was riding in moments prior.
In addition to the having the safety factor of a monitor escorting a child across the street, Burke also believes his legislation will curb potential bad behavior by students.
According to the Buffalo News last April, a 6-year-old claimed he was sexually molested by an 11-year-old. Video evidence from the onboard camera showed that the student’s allegations were true.
The bus was transporting students from a Buffalo West Side Catholic school through an agreement with Buffalo Public Schools. The school district did have at one time aides on their school buses, but hundreds of those jobs were cut starting in 2013.
“What we seen through news reports and concerns from parents is bullying, assault, sexual assault, it’s sort of common knowledge that school buses can be dangerous,” said Burke.
Assault and other issues aren’t rampant on Cheektowaga buses
The Cheektowaga Chronicle spoke to two school district superintendents here in Cheektowaga and they say they aren’t seeing those major issues on their school buses.
“When they talk about there being assaults and major injuries, I don’t have that issue here in Maryvale on a large scale,” said Joseph R. D’Angelo, Superintendent of the Maryvale School District.
In addition to cameras on the buses, Maryvale has a liaison from the district office that works closely with the school bus provider First Student. The liaison goes outside and meets with the drivers on a daily basis to talk about any potential issues.
“Our drivers, if need be, write up referrals on students and our administrators handle it in a quick manner,” added D’Angelo.
But Burke feels school districts still need to go farther to protect students. They need to hire bus aides.
“This might not be the only solution, but it’s the most obvious solution. In that scenario, who is walking the 5-year-old off of the bus? It’s not going to be the camera monitor and it’s not going to be policy. The driver isn’t going to put it in park and walk the 5-year-old across the street. Who’s walking the kid across the street,” Burke asks.
Town school districts will take a budget hit if law passes
The Maryvale School District preliminarily estimates that it would need approximately 20 aides to comply with the proposed law. Taking into account of next year’s hourly rate increase – the district is facing an increase of $250,000 if the bill is passed.
“That is pretty significant for our budget,” said D’Angelo.
Across town is the Cleveland Hill School District – a school district comparable in size – estimates a similar budget hit.
“Unless the County is willing to pay for it, I do not see anyway school districts could support this,” said Jon MacSwan, Superintendent of the Cleveland Hill School District.
“We are struggling to keep up with the unfunded or underfunded mandates that are already placed on us from the State and Federal government. To now have the County step in and give us further unfunded requirements – it’s not a sustainable process that [Burke] would be starting here.”
MacSwan says their growth and revenue is not keeping up with their growth and expenditures. Add to the limitations of the 2% property tax cap and the amount of aid State and Federal aid coming into the district’s coffers and MacSwan paints a bleak picture.
“Every district is already going into the red. Every school district in New York State is going to eventually come to that cliff where you’re financially insolvent.”
”This would be one of those unfunded mandates that’s going to shorten up that time frame to when we can’t afford to pay our bills.”
“It’s not like a casual mandate. This is a pure safety issue,” said Burke.
The Cheektowaga Chronicle asked Burke how he would respond to the superintendents that think this law is potentially another unfunded mandate.
“Tell that to the little girl who was killed. Tell that to the kids who were sexually assaulted on the buses. It’s going to cost them some money to keep their kids safe,” said Burke.
“I appreciate that everyone wants to keep costs as low as possible and I certainly do to. But when you got a certain amount of waste in government and spending on really kind of stupid things that don’t affect people’s lives, I don’t want to hear that there’s not enough money to provide the proper oversight and safety for kids on school buses, that’s ridiculous,” Burke said in general terms to anybody who would be oppose to the cost of bus aides.
State aid a possible solution to budget increase
Superintendent D’Angelo points to the possibility of additional State aid to help with the increased costs.
“If we pay out a given amount this year, we get a percentage back next year. But you have to outlay the money before you get reimbursed the following year.”
“Our budgets are tight and we’re looking for ways to save money generally speaking. But if this became a law, we would comply with it for sure.”
“There are all sorts of things that cost people money,” said Burke.
“Proper supervision of children and keeping them safe while they are away from their family and homes should be a priority, and that’s the bottom line when it comes down to it.”
The law is scheduled for further discussion by the Erie County Legislature Thursday afternoon. The public will have a chance to voice their position if the bill goes to a public hearing.