Carroll County Public Schools is looking at live GPS tracking of buses, and better communication technology with drivers in hopes to improve emergency readiness.
Working with the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, buses could also potentially see the addition of stop-arm cameras to catch drivers who illegally blow past buses’ stop signs, potentially meaning a fine for violators.
Transportation Services staff recently gave the Board of Education an annual benchmark look at the department, which included a 22% drop in preventable accidents from the previous year.
Transportation Services staff hopes to bring a recommendation to the Board of Education this spring about the best tools for improving the communication system for drivers.
Currently, they are in the process of considering different options for cost and effectiveness. Some possible options include a tablet system attached to a push-to-talk radio or a two-way radio system.
“We know that the ability to locate real-time and redirect buses remains an issue and a concern for us, and it is integral in managing critical incidents,” Supervisor of School Security and Emergency Management Duane Williams told the Board during its Dec. 11 meeting.
Currently, cell phone is the primary way to contact drivers. In areas with little to no service, this can fail, Mike Hardesty, director of transportation for CCPS, said.
It is also a slow process because it is illegal for bus drivers to answer the phone while driving, so they must find a location to safely pull the bus over in order to answer a call. In an incident where the school system has to contact multiple buses at once, transportation has to call the bus contractors who contact their drivers individually.
“So if we have a major issue going on at a school or a weather incident in a certain part of the county, we can’t communicate effectively with groups of buses,” said Hardesty.
Video cameras to catch ‘fly-by’ traffic violators
The communication system is tied to live GPS tracking for buses. Both were identified as priorities in audits and practice exercises for emergency situations.
One avenue to get GPS units on buses would be as part of another program currently under consideration. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office is looking into putting cameras on buses, known as stop-arm cameras, to catch “fly-by” drivers who fail to stop while buses are loading and unloading students.
The cost of the installation and equipment would be paid for by the fines paid by violators. The GPS technology could be funded through this avenue if if it goes forward this spring.
Hardesty said that fly-bys are a known problem. In the Maryland State Department of Education’s annual One Day Survey for 2019, bus drivers counted 113 violations in one day in Carroll County.
Commissioner Richard Weaver, who serves as the BOE’s ex-officio member, asked for more specifics on where the money from citations would go.
Maj. Richard Hart, of the Sheriff’s Office, said it would be a split between the vendor and the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office would put the money toward school security and school transportation initiatives.
The Sheriff’s Office will bring the program before the Board of County Commissioners and if approved, stop-arm cameras could be installed as early as April.
Transportation benchmarking report
Transportation Services also updated the Board of Education with its annual Benchmark Report. The benchmark reflects how CCPS is doing compared to state and national standards. It also compares the system to itself year over year, Hardesty said.
One of the most significant numbers in his eyes was a 22% reduction in preventable accidents, from 50 in the 2018 financial year to 39 in the 2019 financial year.
In a phone call after the presentation, Hardesty commended drivers. He said that the CCPS driver training program and emphasis from contractors on safety contributed to the good report, but “a lot of good fortune” was also involved.
Buses traveled nearly 5.3 million miles in FY19, about 7,450 more than in FY18. The operating budget for Transportation increased $322,805 to $19,138,430 total.
The number of regular education buses decreased by three, while the number of special education buses remained the same at 71. All are contractor operated.
Of 23,676 students eligible for transport, there were 19,188 actual riders.
Special education students transported in-county went from 764 to 748 from 2018 to 2019, while special education students transported for services out-of-county rose from 93 to 99.
The Board of Education focused in during the discussion on the state formula that it uses to determine the contribution to transportation.
Hardesty said there is a base contribution for transportation of all students and an additional contribution of $1,000 per student with special needs related to transportation. At one time, state funding covered 100% of transportation costs, but that cost share has fallen more heavily on local school districts, Hardesty said.
Board members said they hoped to be in touch with Carroll’s delegation and the Maryland Association of Counties to see if there was multi-jurisdictional action that could be taken to secure more funding for special education transportation from the state.