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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Tenn. Weighs Response to School Bus Overcrowding

Tenn. Weighs Response to School Bus Overcrowding

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Tennessee education and safety officials are working together to strengthen a bus-waiver program in hopes of significantly reducing the number of overcrowded school buses in the state.

State legislation to prohibit school buses from carrying more students than they can seat hit a roadblock early last month.

The anticipated cost of hiring additional drivers and buying more buses, $1.6 million, proved to be overwhelming for local district officials.

State at a Glance: Tennessee

Population: 5.3 million
Governor: Don Sundquist (R)
State superintendent: Jane Walters
Number of K-12 students: 884,100
Number of K-12 public school districts: 139
Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $2.74 billion

But now state officials are considering regulatory changes that could help solve the problem without mandating a specific remedy or forcing districts to spend more money on transportation.

The push for legislation was prompted by complaints about overcrowding from constituents in an area represented by Rep. Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mount Juliet, a town about 10 miles outside of Nashville.

Several recent bus accidents in the state, including one in January that left 13 students injured, have also heightened parental concern.

"Personally, I think the [bus] load needs to be lightened," said Delorse McGill, the president of the Tennessee PTA.

The 154,000-member organization has not taken an official stance on the state's school bus regulations.

Heeding the call from lawmakers, the Department of Safety, stepped in, said Anthony Kimbrough, a spokesman for the department.

'We're working together to strengthen the program," he said.

Narrower Waivers

Currently, Tennessee districts are allowed to apply for state waivers to load their buses to 20 percent beyond their capacity.

That means, with a waiver, a district could put up to 108 students on a 90-seat bus. Last year, the state education department granted overload waivers to 38 districts.

"We will be more specific in requests, and districts will have to address their need for waivers," Mr. Kimbrough said.

With the new compromise, requests for overload permits would focus on individual buses.

Instead of districts' applying for waivers for extra capacity on all of their buses, schools would seek state approval to run particular buses with more riders than seats.

In addition, under the compromise plan still being discussed last week, local school officials would have to submit a plan--subject to review by the education department and the state department of safety--for reducing an overload to the rated bus capacity.

Schools would then have 30 working days to comply with their plans.

"We are currently working on the language [of the compromise]," said James Abernathy, the executive director of accountability and assessment for the education department.

Dangerous Practice

The National School Transportation Association in Springfield, Va., could not provide current information on which, if any, other states allow standing on school buses.

Standing on a school bus is "absolutely, unequivocally" dangerous for students, added Charles Gauthier, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, based in McLean, Va.

"The elements of crash protection [are] based on the premise that the occupant is seated," Mr. Gauthier said.

His group represents school transportation directors and works to make such transportation safer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, recommends that all passengers be seated on school buses while they are in motion. But federal regulations do not specify the number of persons who can share a school bus seat.

Districts generally are the ones who determine how many children they can safely fit onto a school bus seat.

Tennessee officials hope that a new permitting process would reduce the number of overloaded buses on their roads.

They expect to have such a program in place by the beginning of the 1998-99 school year.

"We're always concerned about the safety of children," Mr. Abernathy said.

"This is an attempt to make a problem better," he said.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Pages 17-21

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