A bill prefiled in Frankfort by Representative Robert Goforth (R-East Bernstadt) would require school districts to mount cameras on school buses that monitor other drivers. It's designed to catch vehicles driven past a bus that has its stop sign deployed, collecting evidence against those drivers who ignore stopped bus laws, allowing offending drivers to be fined.
The bill, BR 136, would impose a fine of $200 on the first offense, and $500 for a second violation within a three-year period.
Goforth's office released statistics from the National Association of State Directors of Pupal Transportation Services (NASDPTS), that shows more than 20 percent of school bus drivers in 38 states and the District of Columbia found that nearly 83,944 vehicles passed 108,623 buses illegally on a single day last school year. That number increased from just over 78,000 vehicles in 2017 and over 74,000 in 2016.
"As a father, and as a legislator, I am committed to doing all I can to protect Kentucky's children as they are transported to and from school, and I believe this is legislation whose time has come. We've had some of the worst possible tragedies imaginable on Kentucky school buses both in the recent and distant past, and out of those awful occurrences, we've learned that we must be proactive in ensuring pupil transportation safety so that we do all in our power to protect precious lives," Goforth said.
In its current form, the bill requires school districts to foot the bill to equip and maintain cameras for every bus in their fleets, or to contract the work out to a third-party company.
And there lies the issue: Most school officials and county attorneys agree that the dangerous practice of ignoring bus stop arms should be curbed, but can cash-strapped districts afford to take on the responsibility?
Superintendent Pat Richardson of the Pulaski County School District said that if each camera costs $415, then his district would need $58,100 to outfit the fleet.
"I am in favor of anything that will curb the abuse of stop arm passing," Richardson said. "It is one of the most dangerous situations that our students and bus drivers face on a daily basis. I am also glad to see our county attorney [Martin Hatfield] addressing this hazard with radio spots and the focus he is bringing forward."
Likewise, Superintendent Kyle Lively of the Somerset Independent School District said he supported the focus stop arm offenses were receiving this school year.
He did not have an estimate on what the cost would be to his district.
"We currently do not have cameras on the stop arms of any of our buses," Lively said. "However, we are hopeful that the focused effort on this issue results in drivers being obedient to the law and more thoughtful about the safety of all students."
Senator Rick Girdler (R-Somerset) agreed that the problem should be looked at, but the issue of funding made him pause when asked if he thought the bill would come up for vote this session.
"I don't think it would be a bad idea, but I don't know how much it would cost," he said.
To compare, Girdler talked about the school safety bill passed and signed last session - Senate Bill 1, which requires districts to have a trained school resource officer in each school and requires electronic locks and intercoms at entryways.
Girdler said that because no funding was attached to those measures, legislature will have to revisit it to discuss "mandating or appropriating" the funds.
That discussion may take over the session, he said, because the bill already has been signed into law. "We need to get that done first," he said.
Of the bus camera bill, Girdler said, "I would think it'd have a hard time getting off the ground this session.
"… If we keep mandating these things, schools will likely have to raise taxes."
Goforth's bill does address funding on one level. Eighty percent of the funds collected from fines will go to the schools, while 10 percent will go to the Kentucky Department of Education and 10 percent will go to local law enforcement.
The representative acknowledged that some of his colleagues had expressed concern about the bill amounting to an "unfunded mandate" but he maintains that isn't really the case.
"I believe the citations will generate the revenue needed not only for the equipment but other school safety programs as well," Rep. Goforth said.
Goforth added that most districts will qualify for a leasing option in which a private company will install and maintain the equipment at no upfront cost to the district -- just a portion of the collections. Even that would be capped at $160 (80 percent of a first-time citation), according to Goforth. Districts not qualifying for a lease could apply for a five-year extension. He also pointed out that many districts operate their fleet on a 10-year rotation and could purchase new buses with the equipment as each bus is retired once the law goes into effect.
"If it costs $1,500 to install a camera on the stop-arm, which is the figure we've been given, imagine that spread over a 10-year lease," Goforth said. "Surely to goodness schools can afford a few dollars each month.…
"I truly believe it's a win-win," he continued. "We're going to save lives. A $200 or $500 fine may sound high but a child's life is priceless. This is a starting point to make people aware of what they're doing when they choose to pass a stopped school bus."
Representative Goforth said he's gotten great feedback regarding the bill and has been assured by House Speaker David Osborne it will be heard by the House Transportation Committee. He added that Representative Ken Upchurch (R-Monticello), who chairs that committee, has also been receptive to the bill.
"We already have some co-sponsors," Goforth concluded, "and others have pledged to sign on the next time they're in Frankfort."