Metro Council pushes for seat belts in school buses; would cost - WSMV News 4

Metro Council pushes for seat belts in school buses; would cost millions

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(WSMV file photo) (WSMV file photo)

Following a deadly school bus crash in Chattanooga, there's a new push to get seats belts in buses in Metro.

The Channel 4 I-Team has added up the numbers, and the cost to do that is staggering.

The I-Team has learned that is money the district doesn’t have.

Metro Council's resolution passed last month to prompt the school district to consider adding buses with seat belts leaves many unanswered questions, including how the district, already tight with its budget, would come up with millions.

Metro Councilwoman Karen Johnson said it’s easy to see why she wants seat belts on Metro school buses.

“We don't want to lose another child … anywhere,” Johnson said.

Her resolution recommending that the district replace every bus in the fleet with ones with seat belts passed unanimously. But is there money for that?

"Right now it's not there. It’s just not there,” said Metro School Board Chair Anna Shepherd.

To find out how much it could cost to meet the council's recommendation, the I-Team did some math.

The district's current buses house students per seat. Seat belts require more room. That means only two students per seat. So the district would have to buy all new buses.

The district tells the I-Team they would need at least 827 new buses. Each new bus would cost $100,000, and each one would have to have seat belts added at an additional cost of $12,000.

The total: more than $92 million.

Shepherd isn’t sure where that money would come from.

“We don't necessarily want take moneys away from other important things we do as a district,” Shepherd said.

So how will they pay for it? In Louisiana, Texas, New York, California, Florida and New Jersey, it happened because lawmakers mandated seat belts on buses across the state.

In fact, lawmakers in Tennessee have tried. Former State Rep. Joe Armstrong pushed for the last two years to make school bus seat belts mandatory across Tennessee. His bill would have made it mandatory for public and private school buses purchased after July 2016 to have seat belts. All older buses would have had to have seat belts by 2023. The bill failed as lawmakers said it would cost too much.

Since the Chattanooga crash in November, some other Tennessee lawmakers are looking to try again. Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he wants to draft legislation that would require them.

The I-Team checked and although nothing has been drafted yet, McCormick said he plans to have something drafted in the next few weeks and would like to see seat belts on school buses as early as this fall.

“Every child is important, and I feel like we need to send a message that they are,” Johnson said.

Johnson thinks back to the parents who lost children in Chattanooga. Misti Nash had two children on the bus that day. Her oldest daughter did not survive.

“I hate the way she had to die. I feel like there should be a bus aide and seat belts,” Nash said.

“I don't think we need to look at it primarily from a financial standpoint but more so from a safety standpoint,” Johnson said.

A spokeswoman for Metro Schools said on average they replace 50-60 buses a year. Each one has about a 15-year life cycle, so all 827 buses wouldn't be replaced all at once.

The topic is scheduled to be discussed at Metro’s first school board meeting of the year on Jan. 10.

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