Originally created 03/19/01

Bus lobby focuses on next year



Christy and Howell Johnson know they will never see their daughter Aleana step off a school bus again.

In the two months since the Westmont Elementary School kindergartner was crushed by her school bus, her parents have been speaking out on school bus safety and lobbying state lawmakers to introduce legislation that would help prevent such accidents.

"We don't want this to happen to another child," Mrs. Johnson said.

In their proposed bus safety plan, the Johnsons stress the need for detailed bus schedules to be distributed to parents, for bus monitors and for quarterly training for pupils and drivers.

They've already gotten the support of State Superintendent of Schools - and Columbia County resident - Linda Schrenko, and that of local officials and state legislators.

But they don't expect anything to happen this year: There's not enough time left in the 2001 General Assembly. Bus safety supporters now have turned their attention to making changes next year.

"You've got to have the plan and start working it in the summer before the session so that it has time to develop and gain support," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans.

Any bus safety changes likely will boil down to a legislative battle. But Mrs. Schrenko said she's been there before and has not been encouraged by the Legislature's track record.

For the past several years, Mrs. Schrenko said, her office has introduced legislation - including to require seat belts on buses and bus monitors - to ensure the safety of Georgia's pupils, and each time she has been put off.

"How many children have to die before the legislature takes the issue of both bus safety and school safety seriously?" Mrs. Schrenko said. "And I ask that question of them every year."

Mr. Harbin has an answer: He can't remember such legislation ever coming before the full House of Representatives.

"I think most everyone up here would be in favor of it," Mr. Harbin said. "But I just don't know that there has ever been a true plan proposed or offered."

As with most new programs, the sticking point is money: Who would pay for hiring bus monitors and adding seat belts? Mrs. Schrenko suggests using lottery dollars, but Mr. Harbin said those funds are already earmarked for programs such as the HOPE scholarship and prekindergarten activities. He prefers using a mix of state and local dollars.

Meanwhile, South Carolina lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require school buses transporting pupils in grades K-6 to have an additional adult passenger on board to serve as a school bus monitor.

Mrs. Schrenko wants whatever changes are made to focus on better training for drivers. After talking with bus drivers throughout the state, Mrs. Schrenko said they are not equipped to deal with many emergency issues that arise with the children.

"Above and beyond all, we support training not only for the students for safety on buses, but more adequate training for drivers," Mrs. Schrenko said.

Regardless of efforts at the state level, the Columbia County Board of Education - at the request of The Friends of Aleana - is taking measures to ensure bus safety in the county.

At last week's school board meeting, Superintendent of Schools Tommy Price announced plans to establish a parent-based committee to oversee the school's transportation program.

"This is a step forward for everyone," Mrs. Johnson said. "This is what we've wanted all along."

The committee will be made up of as many as six parents, the transportation director, bus drivers and school administrators, who will gather and review information and make recommendations to the superintendent's office and school board. The committee will also be responsible for overseeing the ongoing implementation of the county's bus safety plan.

Mr. Price said he has asked elementary school principals to recommend parents to serve on the committee. The selection is expected to be final in April, and the group will meet at least quarterly.

Reach Ashlee Griggs at (706) 868-1222, Ext.109.