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Audit shows school bus shortcomings

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ST. PAUL - School buses remain a safe way to transport students, but Minnesota school districts and state agencies must do more to ensure bus drivers are qualified and vehicles are properly maintained, an audit found.

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Most school districts do a good job overseeing their student transportation operations, but some do not take driver qualifications and busing contracts as seriously as they should, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

The review also showed that state agencies dealing with student transportation should provide more driver oversight and advice to districts about busing issues.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles said providing safe and efficient student transportation is a tough job.

"We found many examples of excellent performance both at the local level and at the state level," Nobles told the Legislative Audit Commission. "But we also found policies and practices that fall short of what they need to be."

School districts spent $446 million on student transportation during the 2005-06 school year. More than 700,000 students were eligible for student transportation.

School districts either provide their own student transportation or contract with a private company to provide busing. Districts are required to offer busing to students living two or more miles from school.

Judy Randall, the audit's project manager, said districts must regularly evaluate their student transportation plans, and those that provide their own busing should do a better job verifying their bus drivers meet requirements.

The audit concluded that qualifications required for those who drive vans or other smaller vehicles for student activities are minimal and should be strengthened. Unlike traditional bus drivers who must obtain a special license and undergo tests, those who drive smaller vehicles only are required to have a standard driver's license and do not need to pass a written exam or be tested for drugs or alcohol.

"We think that the qualifications and requirements for these drivers are insufficient," Randall said.

Sen. David Hann, a commission member who also serves on a Senate student transportation subcommittee, said he thinks lawmakers will debate a bill that addresses issues highlighted in the audit during the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 12.

Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the audit suggests that, overall, student busing programs are safe, but there are ways to improve those services.

The number of school vehicle crashes has declined over the past decade, officials said. Only 30 percent of crashes are attributed to bus driver error, Hann said, and some of those could be eliminated with better scrutiny of the drivers.

"We are interested in making sure we have well-qualified drivers," Hann said.

Auditors were critical of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, which has primary state-level oversight of school busing safety. The department has an inadequate record-keeping system that hampers its oversight of bus safety, the report concluded, and the agency provides minimal oversight of bus drivers.

A team of 11 investigators and a supervisor conduct 14,000 school bus inspections annually, said Capt. Ken Urquhart of the Minnesota State Patrol, who also serves as the Public Safety Department's pupil transportation safety director.

It is eight times safer for a student to be on a school bus than to be driven to school by a parent, Urquhart said.

Urquhart acknowledged the agency's problematic inspection database and said there are plans to upgrade the system. He also agreed the department should do more to verify bus drivers' qualifications.

"We're truly committed to school bus safety," Urquhart said.

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Implementing the audit's recommendations could require more funding, officials said.

The audit also recommended that the Minnesota Education Department provide school districts with best practices information for student transportation services. In a letter, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said the agency will follow through on the audit's recommendations.

Following high-profile school bus crashes in the Twin Cities area, lawmakers sought the audit in April. To study student transportation issues, the auditor's office received completed questionnaires from 95 percent of the 339 school districts surveyed.

Auditors also visited with local school officials around Minnesota, including in the following school districts: Ada-Borup; Carlton; Greenbush-Middle River; Lac Qui Parle Valley; Nashwauk-Keewatin; Pipestone Area; Roseau; South Koochiching; St. Louis County; and Thief River Falls.

On the Web: www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us

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