After a 2006 bus accident in Beaumont that killed two students and injured several more, parents and legislators successfully demanded the state finance seat belts in school buses.
Four years later — after angry parents and legislators this week decried delays and what they called inadequate funds — the Legislative Budget Board finally gave the final approval for the Texas Education Agency to start a grant program to install the belts. But the rules set by the budget board, released today, actually exclude the Beaumont area from the bulk of the available state funds. Most of the state is excluded, too; only a handful of large school districts will get the money.
"There's a sad irony there," conceded TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. Asked if the department had heard complaints from Beaumont officials or parents, she said, "Not yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if we do."
The TEA received the budget board directive Friday morning after a drawn-out, contentious process. Earlier this week, Steve Forman of Beaumont, whose daughter was injured in the 2006 bus accident, told The Dallas Morning News that TEA officials "have attempted to derail the program by targeting its funding and by creating loopholes for some districts to circumvent the law."
But the TEA had to wait for the fiscal year to begin this week and for the budget board to set rules for the grant, Ratcliffe said Friday. Those rules — based on an extended safety study by the Texas Transportation Institute — call for the money to be spent according to three priorities. First, it should be used to equip "small buses and motorcoaches," which are more dangerous than standard large yellow buses. Second, it should be spent primarily in seven counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Hidalgo, Montgomery and Travis — with "the highest number of serious bus crashes." Third, it should be used to equip buses on high-speed two-lane routes in other counties.
The TEA also has taken heat for including the seat belt money in budget cuts. Of the $10 million the Legislature allocated to the purpose, the agency currently only has plans to spend $3.6 million and designated the rest for cuts. But if demand for the money from districts exceeds that amount, Ratcliffe said, agency officials plan to find unspent grant money from other programs fill the gap.
Though most, if not all, of the grant money will bypass the area where the grassroots seat belt movement started, Ratcliffe said, "I’m sure those parents would appreciate having seat belts on buses wherever they can. ... I think those parents will be happy to know that program is getting off the ground in any form or fashion."
Read the Legislative Budget Board letter setting rules for the grants: