State Commission Finds Changes Needed for Safety, Business Viability
TRENTON – At a news conference at the Statehouse today, Senator Joseph V. Doria, Jr., the Chairman of the New Jersey Commission on Business Efficiency of the Public Schools, unveiled a report from the Commission’s Transportation Task Force focusing on the effectiveness and safety of school busing in the Garden State.
“We need to push efficiency in our public schools, to stem rising property taxes, and ensure taxpayers get the most for their money,” said Senator Doria, D-Hudson. “As the mayor of Bayonne, I know that property taxes are the number one concern of my local residents. We’ve reached critical mass on the property tax boom, and unless we take cost-saving measures to lower the pressure on overburdened taxpayers, New Jersey will be economically uninhabitable to all but the extremely wealthy.”
“We have to recognize that a viable busing system is essential for the continued educational success of our students,” said Senator Doria. “So many of New Jersey’s public and private school students rely on busing to get them to and from school. We need to continually update and improve our busing service to ensure that we will be able to meet the transportation needs of our students well into the future.”
The report, titled “Finding the Road: Selected Issues in New Jersey Pupil Transportation,” outlines some of the most pressing issues facing student transportation in New Jersey and offers the Commission’s recommendations to promote efficiency and safety. The report recommends a uniform retirement age for school buses, cooperative transportation proposals between adjoining districts, contracting reforms, a study of two-way communications on buses for emergency use, and driver and bus aide training standards issued by the Department of Education for those involved in transporting disabled or special needs students.
“The bottom line is that our current school bus system is good, but we can make it better,” said Senator Doria. “We have to constantly be striving for the best — the best financial deal for overly burdened property taxpayers, the best training for those we entrust with our special needs kids — and we need to ensure that we have an adaptive service that can be mobilized in the event of a large-scale emergency. As we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, school buses can be very useful in evacuating residents to safer ground.”
He added that many State emergency evacuation plans, such as the plan for evacuation from the area around the Oyster Creek nuclear facility in Lacey Township, rely heavily on local school bus fleets to get residents out of harm’s way. Many of these buses do not have reliable two-way radios which would be necessary to effectuate a mass evacuation safely.
Senator Doria also noted that inefficiency in busing programs contributes to rising property taxes, because ultimately, the cost of busing falls on the backs of property taxpayers. He said that it was necessary to examine the best practices to bring pressure off the taxpayers.
“Taxpayers already shoulder a huge burden in funding our local public schools, and whatever savings we can eke out of the system need to take place,” said Senator Doria. “If we can get our school busing fleets to operate at a higher level of efficiency, we can save money over the long run, and relieve some of the economic strain on property taxes.”
Senator Doria said that the uniform training component for drivers and bus aides transporting special needs students is long overdue and is an essential safety issue that needs to be addressed.
“Our kids are our most precious resources,” said Senator Doria. “When you’re handling special needs kids, that’s a whole different skill set above and beyond your traditional bus endorsement or commercial driver’s licenses. Leaving the care of special needs students to untrained drivers is just asking for trouble, and we need to address this lapse before tragedy strikes.”
Senator Doria added that he would work to implement many of the recommendations that require Statewide action, but noted that in some instances local action is also required to ensure the continued viability of school busing.
“A successful school bus program requires State and local governments acting as willing partners,” said Senator Doria. “We can give our local boards of education all the tools in the world, but unless they step up to the plate and work with us, we won’t see the kind of progress we’re looking for with school busing. Working together, we can ensure school busing services are efficient, effective and safe, but separately, we can only achieve so much.”