Rear-mounted cameras monitor the tail of the bus.
Rear-mounted cameras monitor the back end of a school bus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee approved recommendations to amend an ordinance allowing traffic citations based on footage from school bus cameras. The proposed changes came in response to complaints from people who received citations.

The ordinance was designed to increase safety by monitoring traffic around school buses and citing motorists who violate the law by passing stopped school buses. But some people who received citations complained about how to challenge them.

At the committee meeting Wednesday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus recommended that school districts be required to designate a point of contact for community members and violators, and that citations include the school district’s contact information.

“We felt it would be better adjusting the ordinance rather than discontinuing it,” McManus said.

The current ordinance, which was approved in June 2016, lays out several requirements. School districts must compile an annual report to the police department, give written notice to violators within 30 days of the violation and have independent hearing examiners. Violators also must have 30 days to appeal the citation.

Arrest warrants may not be issued for violations, and violations will not appear on driving records, according to the ordinance. Fines are capped at $300, and outstanding fines cannot be reported to a collection agency.

Five San Antonio school districts who implemented citation programs using school bus camera monitoring systems have yet to see any revenue from the fines collected.

Northeast, South San, Southside, Southwest, and Judson Independent School Districts issued 30,045 citations for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, totaling to $8.3 million in fines, according to SAPD data. However, the school districts collected only $3.7 million, and all of that went to the company, BusGuard, that installed and maintained the cameras at no cost to the district.

BusGuard was bought by Virginia-based BusPatrol after former Dallas County Schools superintendent Rick Sorrells pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery in April, according to KXAS-TV in Dallas.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) proposed abolishing the ordinance altogether because the program still has not generated money for school districts.

“There’s no success in it,” he said. “The school districts aren’t seeing any revenue … Let’s just go back to it being a criminal offense. We just layered a civil offense [on top] and it’s produced nothing in two years.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) defended the citation program, arguing the school districts were given a clear advantage by partnering with tech companies to outfit buses with cameras at no cost to the districts.

“They say teachers need to have eyes in the back of their head,” Courage said. “Well, school districts need eyes all over. If this helps them save a few million dollars because they have technology that allows them to track what’s going on, that’s worth it right then and there, even if they don’t make another buck.”

Courage recommended two more amendments that also were approved by the committee. He suggested directing all proceeds to public safety improvements around school campuses and asked for quarterly reports instead of annual, with locations of violations included in each citation.

“We can see if there are hotspots where we need to dispatch more police,” he said. “If we only see the answers once a year that does not help us.”

Two of the school districts are no longer participating in the citation program, according to Joe Frank Picazo, assistant to McManus. Northeast ISD canceled its contract with company BusPatrol, while Southwest ISD stopped issuing citations until they make “necessary modifications” to how it communicates with violators, Picazo said.

All five school districts are looking at other vendors, he added.

“In our role with the SAPD, we’re not advocating it one way or the other, we’re leaving it to the school districts to decide,” Picazo said.

The amendment recommendations will be forwarded to the full City Council. SAPD will update the Public Safety Committee on the bus camera program again in early 2019, Picazo said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.