School officials debate elimination of bus monitors
Updated 10:24 am, Friday, January 23, 2015
The death of Holly Finley, an 8-year-old Westport girl run over and killed by a school bus she was exiting in December 1991, prompted school officials to place monitors on all of the town's school buses.
But over the years, the number of bus monitors has declined and now only 24 of the 47 bus runs have monitors on board, according to Sandy Evangelista, the school district's transportation coordinator.
Questions about the future of school bus monitors arose during the Board of Education's Tuesday meeting as members consider a consultant's recommendation to eliminate monitors except those needed by students with special needs.
The recommendation was one of nine made by representatives of the National Executive Service Corps, a consulting firm that recently completed a productivity and efficiency study for the school district. Eliminating the bus monitors would result in a savings, NESC said, but no amount was given.
"Today, school buses include safety systems that address the underlying root cause of the accident" that killed Finley, the NESC study concluded. "It is also worth noting that not every school bus (currently) transporting the general education students has a monitor, which begs the question `Why one and not all?' "
Why aren't monitors on all the buses, asked board member Elaine Whitney.
Evangelista said there's not enough monitors to go around. And, she added, there's a problem recruiting and retaining monitors, adding that of the 16 currently on the job, most have been with the school district for 10 years or more, while others come and go.
It's hard, she said, to find someone who wants to work only a couple of hours each day. The majority of the bus monitors are retirees and several of them recently also retired from bus monitoring.
"They get paid per trip, per diem," she said, but added they do get raises.The current average hourly pay for the town's bus monitors is $13.40, according to Evangelista.
She said the monitors who stay on the job do so because they "love their school families."
And it's not as though she hasn't tried to hire more monitors, Evangelista said, telling the board that she's posted the position, considered high school students for the job and reached out to senior centers in search of candidates.
She said eight of the 16 monitors are on permanent runs while the others are assigned based on factors like dangerous roadways; buses where their might be a problem with student behavior, and where the bus driver might have a problem dealing with discipline problems.
"They are a second pair of eyes," she said of the monitors, but noted it's ultimately the bus driver's job to maintain order on a bus.
Cliff Gibson, chief operating officer of Dattco, the district's school bus provider, agreed.
He said bus monitors are "one of many components" of school bus safety and help to "keep the bus calm," but they are not the "be all and end all."
First and foremost, he said is training the drivers with how to "deal with kids today" and how to manage driving a bus packed with 60 students while the driver's back is turned.
He said buses are also equipped with cameras, three inside and one outside each vehicle, which are supposed to be activated when the bus is in service.
Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon agreed, saying, "Every one of our buses has modern and updated video-recording systems that enable us to review student behavior on a bus, when necessary."
Landon added the school system doesn't have "any policies governing the functions of bus monitors." However, he said, the role of monitors has always been "only to observe and assist students getting on and off our buses to ensure that they are not in the vicinity of the bus when it may be moving."
"They are not on the bus as disciplinarians, the function of which rests with the bus drivers who are expected to report disciplinary issues on the bus to the school administration, where appropriate," he added.
Board member Paul Block said Evangelista's method of determining which of the 24 buses is assigned a monitor seemed "haphazard."
"It's not haphazard," Evangelista responded. "We look at where they will make the most impact at reducing risk. It's all about risk mitigation."
She said the buses with the largest number of kindergartners generally get preference.
Board member Karen Kleine asked Evangelista if the decline in the number of monitors over the years has created any problems.
"I can tell you that, at the elementary level, there have been no accidents or incidents with students boarding or disembarking buses." Evangelista said.
NESC reported that other school districts in Connecticut have eliminated bus monitors. But at least one school board member does not support that here.
Jeannie Smith said the NESC consultants are "just looking at numbers and stats, and are not emotionally attached to this issue,"
"I have a kindergartner and I love my bus monitor," the board member said. "Why take away something we all enjoy and expect?"
PTA Council Co-chairwoman Sue Calger recounted a recent incident involving her two young children.
She said their bus was late and arrived at her home after dark. "Because of a series of events there was no adult waiting for them," she said. "Because of the late hour, the bus monitor made a call" so her children didn't have the walk the distance up the driveway to her house. "The bus driver would have just left them there," she said.
She also said they've had five or six new bus drivers since the beginning of school and the monitors "add consistency."
"I live on a two-lane road and have never had a bus monitor," said Kerry Liles, PTA Council co-chairwoman. She said for the past 10 years, either she or a neighbor have waited at a bus stop for their children. "I don't see this as a problem for the school district, but a parent concern," about making sure children get on and off the bus safely.
But, Liles added, if the board considers this a safety concern, "there needs to be parity across the board for the entire school district."
"If it's for safety, then it shouldn't vary from child to child," she said.
Block agreed, then asked if there is a way to consider "an elite team to monitor all of the buses."
"How about 10 highly trained monitors?" he asked. Evangelista said that's "something to consider" and Chairman Michael Gordon asked the administration to give some thought to Block's idea.
Eliminating bus monitors was raised during last year's budget season when Representative Town Meeting member Rick Weber proposed a $200,000 cut in the education budget. Landon, at that time, said reductions had already been made and the remaining budget was cut to the bone.
"What's left?" Landon asked, adding there was no way he would recommend to the board to cut teachers. Landon then said if the RTM cut $200,000 he would recommend cutting school bus monitors.
That prompted an emotional response from RTM member Steve Rubin, who recalled Finley's death. She was killed when a cord from her jacket got caught in a school bus railing as she was leaving the bus at her driveway. The bus driver was unaware her clothing had become entangled in the vehicle and drove off, dragging the girl beneath the bus.
Board member Brett Aronow reminded the board that NESC "didn't say get rid of bus monitors, but showed us very clearly that getting rid of them wouldn't impact the priorities of our school system."
A vote on the bus monitor recommendation will take place in two weeks, Gordon said.