By Elena Cawley and Erin McCullough, Staff Writers
A new state law effective Jan. 1 tightens safety requirements for school transportation departments in Tennessee.
The bill calls for a stricter overseeing process of all complaints related to the school buses, and streamlined training and safety policy.
Additionally, a bumper sticker on the back of each bus will display the phone number of the local department to encourage residents to call if they have any concerns related to the safety of the students.
Though area school systems department already comply with a significant part of the new law’s requirements, some changes at the local level will be necessary.
The bill requires each school that provides transportation services to appoint a transportation supervisor responsible for overseeing the department.
The superintendent is also required to complete a training program developed jointly with the state’s department of safety and department of education.
Each school will annually confirm the identity of the superintendent and compliance with the training requirements, according to the new bill.
Transportation departments must develop a safety transportation policy, as well.
Additionally, the bill requires all new school bus drivers to complete a school bus driver training program, based on standards established by the departments of education and safety, before a new bus driver transports students.
This bill also increases the minimum age of a person before becoming eligible for issuance of a school bus operator endorsement from 21 to 25.
Tullahoma City Schools
According to Dan Lawson, director of schools for Tullahoma City Schools, the district is already complying with the majority of the new rules.
The district’s transportation supervisor will be Mike Roggli, the business director for the district, Lawson said.
Lawson also said that the transportation safety policy is in the process of being crafted in compliance with the new law.
Tullahoma has a significantly smaller fleet of school buses than the Coffee County School System — only “seven or eight,” according to Lawson.
Even smaller still is the number of bus drivers employed by the district: there is just one.
Since Tullahoma doesn’t use school buses for everyday student pickup and drop off, the majority of drivers utilized by the district are subcontractors who only work for specific trips.
“They’re not regular employees,” Lawson said, but they are all over the age of 25, which complies with the new law.
Lawson also said the bumper stickers that must go on the back of the buses have been ordered and are on their way to the office.
Everything the administration needed to do before Jan. 1 was taken care of swiftly, Lawson said. The remaining training compliance will be completed as it becomes available, he said.
Coffee County Schools
Coffee County Schools Transportation Department also already complies with most the new bill’s requirements, according to Tim Morris, transportation director for Coffee County Schools. Morris has served as a transportation superintendent for seven years.
The department already has a safety policy, as well.
One of the changes because of the new bill will be informing Director of Coffee County Schools LaDonna McFall about all complaints related to the school buses and drivers, according to Morris.
“I will be forwarding parents’ complaints, students’ complaints of inappropriate driver behavior, the investigations that follow, and the follow-up report to (McFall),” Morris said. “After I find out everything about the report or the investigation, I have 24 hours to start the investigation and 60 days to clear the investigation.”
However, Morris said, he usually tries to complete the investigation in two days.
“Stretching it out to 60 days doesn’t give parents the good feeling that I’m watching,” Morris said.
Morris and the bus drivers already go to all classes and trainings required by the law.
“I have to go to two mandatory classes per year that are overseen by the State of Tennessee,” Morris said.
As a superintendent of the transportation department, Morris schedules the buses.
Additionally, he prepares the budget for the department.
“I try to stay on budget but not be cheap,” Morris said.
Morris also applies for grants, when they’re available.
“I also drive when needed, and I like driving and being with the kids,” Morris said. “I came out of the classroom as a teacher, so I miss being around the kids. This gives me an opportunity to be around the kids.”
Morris’s duties also include watching videos of the camera system.
“The new buses have eight cameras, to protect the kids and the drivers, and keep bullying down,” Morris said. “The kids know they are being videoed.”
The department owns 64 buses, according to Morris.
“Each bus has cameras,” Morris said. “Some buses have four cameras, and the newer buses have eight camera. That gets to be expensive, but the buses with eight cameras have a camera that allows you to see outside of the bus, as well.”
Not only is safety education important for bus drivers but it is important for students, as well, according to Morris.
“At the beginning of the school year, I go to the schools and teach all the kids about safety,” Morris said. I hope it helps; it seems to have curtailed some of the discipline problems. It’s a joint effort; the kids want to go home and we want to take them home safely.”
Those who see a bus driver not picking up a child, a bus driver speeding, slamming on the brakes or running a stop sign may call (931) 723-5157. Morris also encourages residents to call with any other safety concerns.
Few changes will be needed
“Tim Morris is our transportation director,” said Coffee County School System Deputy Director of Schools Joe Pedigo.
“Morris plans the bus routes, assigns drivers, and oversees mechanics in maintenance of buses,” Pedigo said. “Morris also works with school administrators on bus discipline issues.”
The superintendent’s responsibilities also include maintaining buses to meet State of Tennessee’s standards and developing a bus replacement schedule, along with bus bid specifications when new buses need to be purchased, said Pedigo.
No new safety policy has to be developed.
“We (already) have a bus transportation policy,” Pedigo said.