The man in charge of the largest school bus operation in North Texas it out. Rick Sorrells the superintendent of Dallas County schools retired under a cloud of controversy as the agency deals with a financial crisis and questions about it's school bus stop arm camera program.
Cameras mounted to the stop-arms of school buses have worked well in other cities to keep kids safe, but NBC 5 Investigates discovered Dallas County Schools spent more than $17 million in bond money to buy stop-arm cameras and on-board security cameras when they could have received some of the equipment for free.
Thousands of times a day across the state of Texas drivers run past a stop sign sticking out from a school bus.
Dallas County Schools, an intermediate educational agency that serves Dallas County’s 14 independent school districts, wanted to crack down on the problem for the 11 school districts whose bus lines they manage.
“Every day you see and hear of near misses,” said Rick Sorrells, superintendent of Dallas County Schools.
Sorrells decided to use bond money to install a system that includes stop-arm cameras outside of the bus and security cameras inside of the bus.
“Our program was a student safety program where we want it on every single bus that’s there,” Sorrells said.
The district predicted the cameras would pay for themselves in a couple of years.
A budget document obtained by NBC 5 Investigates estimated the cameras would bring in more than $10 million in fines for the first year alone. But NBC 5 Investigates discovered the district only brought in $3.5 million in a year.
Why? The first problem is they’ve been unable to collect most of the fines.
The district said their current collection rate is about 40 percent, leaving approximately $6 million in unpaid fines. The district just executed an agreement in October to allow a collection agency to go after those who haven’t paid.
There’s another reason Dallas County Schools aren’t collecting more fines. Right now only the City of Dallas has a local ordinance allowing stop-arm cameras. That means when the cameras catch people in other Dallas County cities that don’t have an ordinance allowing the cameras, the police can’t write the ticket.
The district said they’re working on getting other cites to pass those laws, but meanwhile they still paid to put cameras on buses running in areas where they can’t even write tickets.
Instead of depending on ticket money to pay for the cameras the district could have done something different. In Georgia, a number of school districts have installed stop-arm cameras for free.
NBC 5 Investigates traveled to suburban Atlanta, Ga., where the Cobb County School District was among the first in the nation to install stop-arm cameras.
Cobb County transportation director Rick Grisham signed a deal with American Traffic Solutions, one of the country’s biggest red-light traffic camera providers. For Cobb County schools, ATS installed school bus stop-arm cameras, maintains the camera and even collects the fines for no upfront fee.
In exchange, Cobb County splits the fine revenue with ATS for the first five years. At the end of five years the district will own the cameras outright.
“I’m proud to say we’re producing something that’s not costing or a burden to the school district,” said Grisham.
“I can only tell you that of all the bus clients we work with, not one has ever spent a dime of taxpayer money to fund one of these programs,” said David Jackson, ATS.
ATS did not bid on the Dallas County Schools job because the district only wanted to buy the cameras, not to enter a revenue-sharing deal in exchange for cameras.
Sorrells knew about the programs that offer free cameras but said the ones he saw only included putting cameras on a portion of the fleet and Dallas County Schools wanted cameras on every bus in the county. He believes that’s better for the safety of kids.
Meanwhile, ATS said you don’t need to put cameras on all of the buses in a fleet for the program to be successful.
“Usually violations follow the old 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of the violations end up on the most dangerous routes, that 20 percent of routes,” said Jackson.
In Cobb County, they put them on 10 percent of buses that are evenly distributed throughout the county. Cobb County said the number of violations went way down.
Grisham said within three years violations were cut in half.
That’s great news for safety, but when violations go down so does the revenue.
Several camera vendors and school districts told NBC5 Investigates most cities see a 40-70 percent drop in violations after the first year.
That could be bad news for Dallas County School’s plan to quickly pay off its $17 million camera bill.
Sorrells doesn’t think purchasing the cameras was a gamble because, “we were going to purchase the camera equipment anyway.”
Sorrells still believes the stop-arm cameras will pay for themselves, and the security cameras inside the buses, in less than three years, but ironically, while Dallas County Schools tries to pay off the bill, the district is telling other school districts they don’t need to buy the cameras.
NBC 5 Investigates discovered Dallas County Schools formed a business partnership with the company it purchased cameras from and they’re now jointly marketing the cameras to other districts across the state.
In a sales presentation, the district pushes the exact kind of revenue-sharing deal it decided against, offering to give other districts free cameras in exchange for a cut of the fines. An excerpt from the presentation says, “What sets us apart? We make it easy - the BusGuard system comes at no cost to your district, it’s 100 percent free.”
“Dallas County Schools purchased the equipment, owns the equipment, so that we can provide safety across every student that’s in the district,” said Sorrells.
So, while Dallas County Schools tires to make the ride to school less risky, time will tell if they made a risky financial decision in the process.
Ultimately, DCS spent more than $75 million on the camera program -- borrowing money to pay for much of the equipment. DCS also borrowed more than $20 million from the agency's own general fund to help pay for the program. But they never collected enough to cover the expenses.
DCS is now in danger of running out of cash and defaulting on its debts. The agency announced a restructuring plan this week that would give DCS five additional years to pay back debt - freeing up cash to stay in business.
On Wednesday, Sorrels announced his retirement -- just days after State Senator Royce West called on Sorrells to resign.