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Bill to give WA school districts flexibility on transportation options moves ahead

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(The Center Square) – A bill that would give Washington school districts more flexibility when it comes to student transportation has cleared its first major hurdle, passing out of the full Senate Monday with near-unanimous support.

Senate Bill 6031 is sponsored by Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.

“After seeing near my home a full-size school bus transporting only two or three children, I called some local school superintendents to ask why the bus and not a smaller, less-expensive, more environmentally friendly vehicle was being used,” he said.

That’s when he discovered that state law requires money allocated for student transportation be used only for school buses.

“The idea behind this bill is giving these districts some flexibility,” Braun told the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Transportation Committee last month during a public hearing.

Speaking to safety concerns, Braun said, “Going back several years there were a lot of issues with 16-seat passenger vans, but I think that problem has largely been solved. However, I am sensitive to that as the last thing we want is to use more passenger vans and then have any kind of incidents as a result.”

Rick Chisa with Public School Employees, a union that includes school bus drivers, testified “other” on the bill, meaning PSE does not support or oppose the measure.

“The safety of students must be a critical component in these decisions and should be considered at a higher degree than convenience or efficiency,” he said.

Chisa cited a January accident involving a Wahluke school bus that was t-boned and flipped over near Mattawa.

“According to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, 13 children grades 3 through 8 were taken to hospitals in the Tri Cities and fortunately none of those injuries were deemed serious,” he said. “It is very likely these students injuries would have been much more serious if they were transported in a van.”

Greg Price, superintendent of the Columbia School District, said bus driver shortages are crippling their transportation system, and options will help.

“We currently provide transportation to approximately 120 students with one bus, and 3 support vehicles,” he explained. “Every day we rely on staff to make multiple drop-offs and pickups.”

He went on to say, “Being able to use our support vehicles was not a choice but a necessity to get students to and from school, and we’ve had to rely on another district to supply us with support vehicles on days when we have field trips or athletic contests.”

Due to bus driver shortages and budget issues, even the largest school district in the state, the Seattle School District, has made dramatic changes to transportation policy in recent years. Those changes include giving students public transportation passes, changing school bell-times, and increasing walk-zones for students who can no longer rely on bus transportation.

“It makes more sense to allow school districts to use vans or other alternative vehicles, so long as they meet safety standards and are operated safely,” Braun said.

SB 6031 will now be considered in the House of Representatives.

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