School officials in Baltimore and Baltimore County pledged Thursday to track, for the first time, automated camera citations that are issued to privately owned school buses hired to transport public-school children.
The assurances came after The Baltimore Sun reported that since 2009 cameras have caught hundreds of school buses speeding near the schools they serve, often with children aboard.
Privately owned buses have received at least 800 speed camera tickets in the city, while city-owned buses have amassed more than 50, The Sun found by analyzing citation records. Baltimore County public school buses have gotten more than 100 over the past two years.
While both districts say they monitor the tickets their own employees receive, neither requires private bus companies to report when their drivers get red light or speed camera tickets. That will change as the companies' contracts come up for renewal, officials say.
The city school district pays 16 companies to transport students, including many with special needs or in elementary school, and the district will add the reporting requirement to new agreements scheduled to be signed in the coming months.
"It's very hard to do the quality assurance if you don't have the information," said Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the district's Office of Engagement. Sarbanes noted that the contracts were last drawn up six years ago, before speed cameras were legalized across Maryland.
Baltimore County schools rely mostly on government-employed drivers, and privately owned buses have received only a handful of speed camera tickets in the county, records show. Still, spokesman Charles Herndon said the county will take "a very close look" at modifying its school bus contracts as they're renewed.
"It's a matter of making sure we're made aware when a contract driver receives any kind of violation," he said. "We absolutely would want to know that."
The $40 speed camera tickets are issued only to vehicles recorded driving at least 12 mph over the speed limit, whether in school zones or highway work zones. More than two dozen school buses were clocked 20 mph or more over the limit in the city, including one that hit 74 mph in February on West Cold Spring Lane near the Poly-Western high school campus.
Robert L. Edwards, president of the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association, said he was "dismayed" by The Sun's findings.
The association has no city members but does represent many school bus companies that contract with local school boards around Maryland. And its members are committed to student safety, said Edwards, who lives in Forest Hill and owns JDT Transportation, Inc.
"The drivers we employ are certainly not perfect," he said in a statement. "They are human and, as such, sometimes make mistakes. But we in no way take these mistakes lightly. Our track record of safety is unparalleled and we have careful measures in place to police and improve upon the way we carry out our very important job."
Edwards said new technology will only enhance safety: "We welcome such advancements — ranging from on-board video/audio systems to red light and speed cameras — and the increased oversight and additional supervision they provide," he said.
The volume of tickets in the city has alarmed City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who said she worried that there will be school bus accidents "if these habits are not turned around."
City school officials also explained Thursday the reason they have an incomplete record of speed camera tickets issued to school system employees driving city-owned vehicles.
The issue came to light when the school system said it was aware of just 15 citations issued to a Jeep Liberty registered to the city schools' police program, even though The Sun documented 28 speed camera tickets in the city and Baltimore County.
The district got its figure from a public database of parking citations maintained by the city's OpenBaltimore website, according to Sarbanes. But the site does not include citations that are more than a year old or have been paid. Also, OpenBaltimore does not have data on the Jeep's seven tickets from the county.
Asked why the district does not keep current citation files for its own vehicles, Sarbanes said: "We're taking a look at that in terms of how to keep track of it."
Sarbanes emphasized that school buses are a safe way to transport schoolchildren. Buses contracted or owned by the district made more than 800 trips a day last year, logging some 23,000 miles each day.
According to the county school district, its buses log 1,933 trips a day, covering 80,294 miles.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun