School districts look to bonds to pay for new school bus seat belt requirements

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state of Texas now requires seat belts on any new buses a school district buys, but the state isn’t providing any extra funding for the pricey change, so some local school districts are looking to taxpayers to foot the bill.

“Everybody agrees a seat belt makes it a little safer,” said Lake Travis ISD Superintendent Brad Lancaster. “The problem is funding.”

LTISD is asking voters to approve a $253 million bond, which includes $1.3 million for adding seat belts to its entire fleet of buses. The district plans to buy 40 new buses with seat belts installed and install seat belts in its other 40 older buses that will still be in use, even though the state only requires seat belts in buses purchased since September of this year.

“Nobody wants to choose which kiddo gets to wear a seat belt and which not,” he said. “So we’re going to err on the side of caution and go above and beyond what the law requires.”

Adding seat belts can cost districts anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 per bus.

“I would make a plea that the legislature pay for that,” Lancaster said. “We would appreciate the funding, but in the meantime we’re going to have to provide that funding ourselves.”

State Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who wrote the law, says the state did offer to pay for seat belts for districts that qualified in 2007, but not many applied.

“The districts didn’t use it,” Garcia said. “So this time, we decided it would be best to just leave it up to the local school districts to put it in their budget.”

Garcia says she doesn’t feel the law will have too big of an impact. “They may need to just buy one less bus,” she said.

But for districts like Lake Travis, needing to replace a large number of buses, the price tag could rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state law does provide an exception for districts that can’t find the means to add seat belts to new buses. They must hold a public meeting with a vote.

Both Austin ISD and Leander ISD are asking for voters to fund putting seat belts in buses as well. Leander ISD’s bond package calls for $10.2 million for adding new buses with seat belts, and AISD is asking for $18.4 million.

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