$10M OKed for School Bus Seat Belts Largely Spent Elsewhere

Six years after the Texas Legislature approved $10 million to equip more school buses with seat belts the money is gone, but little of it went for its intended purpose.

Less than $1 million was awarded to school districts to equip school buses with seat belts, The Houston Chronicle reported reported Thursday.

Though funding was approved in 2009, state seat belt requirements have a loophole allowing that, since no direct state funding was designated for seat belts, installing them wasn't mandatory for school districts.

The only direct funding for school bus seat belts came in 2011, when the Texas Education Agency offered about $415,000. The rest of the allotted funds were returned to state coffers or used elsewhere in an agency budget tightened by other public education cuts.

There's no official tally, but most standard-size school buses statewide lack seat belts. The issue was highlighted by the recent school bus crash in Houston that killed two students. That bus was equipped with lap belts but it was not known if the students had secured them.

In all, about 35,000 school buses transport 1.5 million school children daily.

Texas approved a school bus seat belt law in 2007, which mandated that school buses bought on or after Sept. 1, 2010, be equipped with three-point seat belts, the kind that strap across the waist and shoulder. But the law wouldn't take effect unless the Legislature provided money to reimburse districts.

In 2009, lawmakers allocated the $10 million to the Texas Education Agency for the upcoming budget year.

School districts across the state showed little interest, however, when the state sought applications for seat belt funding. Education agency spokeswoman DeEatta Culbertson said that in 2010 and in 2011, only 12 of Texas' 1,000-plus districts sought seat belt funding -- and some withdrew their requests after realizing the money covered only seat belts, not the buses themselves.

Amid drastic cuts to public education approved by the Legislature in 2011, meanwhile, the agency budgeted most of what had been school bus seat belt money into line items called "commissioner's priorities" -- fine arts, early childhood data collection and specialists, and remedial education.

TEA records show Houston Independent School District, the state's largest, applied for the seat belt grant in November 2010. But the district's transportation chief, Nathan Graf, said officials did not complete the application process because they did not believe HISD was eligible under the grant criteria.

The grant application's top priority was for small buses. The next level prioritized buses in "counties with the highest number of serious bus crashes for use on high-speed two-lane routes."

Graf said that HISD, though in Harris County, did not have bus routes on high-speed two-lane roads.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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