Sulphur Springs Independent School District moving forward will purchase school buses without seat belts for general bus routes, district trustees decided this week. Pre-kindergarten and Head Start buses will still have the safety devices required by law, but all other new buses will not have seat belts for students.
Superintendent Michael Lamb cited budget constraints as the prime reason for his recommendation of buses without seat belts, when presenting the proposal to SSISD Board of Trustees. He explained that after the legislative session 2 years ago some laws were passed which allow school districts that are unable to handle in their budgets the costs of converting to buses with seat belts to formally make that decision in a board meeting.
“Basically, the way the wording is, it says ‘if you feel like your budget can’t handle it.’ This time last year, we didn’t go this route because I felt like for the most part we have the finances to buy a bus. What we’ve discovered in a year’s time is that it’s really bigger than that,” Lamb said.
Converting to buses with seat belts would mean one less person per bus seat. That would necessitate the purchase of about 20 additional buses to have enough seats for all bus students. That would increase the bus fleet from 60 to 80 buses, because only two students can sit per seat in school buses with seat belts as opposed to potentially three per seat without seat belts.
SSISD cannot afford purchasing that many more buses, nor hire additional drivers to drive them.
“Right now, we are running about two or three bus drivers short all the time. We have a hard time finishing that staff. Well, if we go to 80, we certainly will,” Lamb told trustees at their regular May meeting Monday. “We truly, truly, truly – and we didn’t feel like we could say this last year — cannot afford this transition. We can’t afford what we’d need to pay to get more drivers, we probably cannot afford to maintain an 80 bus fleet, at least not under the current circumstances. … To catch up and do the things we really need to do, we just can’t.”
He noted that Assistant Superintendents Josh Williams and Rusty Harden are doing a lot of substitute bus driving of late, to make up for the shortage in bus drivers.
“Do we have any in our fleet that do have seat belts?” Jason Dietze asked.
Lamb said SSISD did purchase a bus with seat belts last year, and it can still be used, he recommended for field trips.
Lamb acknowledged that seat belts on buses can be a controversial topic that raises safety questions.
“Typically, we feel like the impact of a bus wreck – because the bus is so large, the seats are covered, etc. – students are generally safe,” Lamb said.
He said in his research, he found concerns have been expressed that seat belts on a bus could actually be more detrimental to smaller children’s health in that they might prevent younger students from being able to quickly and safely exit a bus in an emergency situation such as a bus fire or a bus overturning into a ditch with water.
“I think in reading through the literature on the design of buses, the intent of the way they are structured, they have a design to prevent things that would happen,” board member John Prickette said, noting information referred to them by Lamb regarding school bus safety and seat belts.
“I know it’s not necessarily an easy thing to come up with or decide, but it is the recommendation I’m making that we be allowed to buy buses from this day forward that do not have seat belts. That’s the request of the administration at this time,” Lamb said.
Trustees gave approval for the purchase of two school buses without seat belts this year according to the regular maintenance and replacement schedule, as recommended by Lamb, at their regular May board meeting Monday.