Five school districts in San Antonio have installed cameras on the sides of school buses since a local ordinance established a $300 fine in June 2016 for drivers that pass stopped buses. Each are expected to continue the program aimed at enhancing student safety next year, despite some concerns about enforcement and revenue.

More than $5 million in civil penalties were issued by school districts — Judson, North East, South San, Southside, and Southwest — in the 2016-2017 school year, but less than half – about $2 million – were paid by drivers.

That money went to BusGuard, the now-defunct collaboration between Dallas County Schools and Force Multiplier Solutions that installed and maintained the cameras at no cost to the districts.

Rick Sorrells, former Dallas County Schools superintendent, pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery, recently “pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud and admitted to receiving more than $3 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for entering into contracts for $70 million in school bus camera equipment,”according to the Dallas NBC affiliate. Robert Leonard, CEO of Force Multiplier Solutions, is currently under federal investigation about his connections to Sorrells and his involvement with BusGuard.

The Rivard Report reached out to several school district representatives, but none could be reached for comment before publication.

The program is now operated by BusPatrol, a Virginia-based company that purchased BusGuard’s assets and has operations in several southern U.S. cities and Canada.

So is the initiative working? San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday it’s too soon to tell.

City officials have said that overall about one-third of deaths in school bus-related collisions occur in the immediate 10-foot area surrounding the bus because motorists disregard the flashing lights and stop arm, but violation and citation data related to the cameras haven’t yet been collected. Data is due from the districts to SAPD on July 1 and will be relayed to City Council.

“I really don’t know what kind of deterrent effect it actually has,” McManus told the Rivard Report of the camera program. But added that “theoretically” the districts should see an increase in violations and citations, followed by an eventual decrease as people become more aware of the cameras and the law.

During the 2016-2017 school year, 33,527 violations were recorded by district officials. About 56 percent, 18,823, resulted in citations issued by the district. Some were appealed and some were simply never paid by the driver, said Erik Walsh, deputy city manager.

Five districts started using cameras on school buses to catch drivers illegally passing stopped buses.
Five districts started using cameras on school buses to catch drivers illegally passing stopped buses. Credit: Courtesy / SAPD

The ordinance includes language that prevents the referral of unpaid cases to go to bill collection, he said. “Some [Council members at the time] were concerned that this $300 charge would end up in collections and impact [people’s] credit [score].”

As a result, said Assistant City Attorney James Kopp, there are “no real consequences … no real enforcement mechanism.”

SAPD also enforces traffic laws surrounding schools and bus stops, McManus said, but the cameras “catch a lot of violations” police officers can’t.

In 2016, SAPD caught 71 drivers passing stopped buses. In 2017, it caught 45 – the same number that officers have caught so far this year. SAPD also issues citations for failure to obey school crossing guard/police officer, speeding in school zone, speeding in construction zones, and use of a cellphone or other wireless communication devices. SAPD is on track to issue more such citations this year than in 2016. There was a large spike in speeding tickets in school zones last year, McManus said, which may be due to SAPD’s increased speed enforcement.

SAPD caught 5,208 school zone- and school bus-related violations so far in 2018.
SAPD caught 5,208 school zone- and school bus-related violations so far in 2018. Credit: Courtesy / SAPD

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and John Courage (D9) said they received complaints from residents in their districts about a lack of awareness about how to challenge the tickets.

The cameras installed on buses captures video of vehicles that pass while the stop sign arm is deployed, Kopp said. The video is then reviewed by a bus patrol officer who then issues a notice of fine to the owner of the vehicle. Drivers/owners have 30 days to appeal to the district. They are also entitled to a hearing at the district, Kopp added, if they want to challenge the citation and they are allowed to call witnesses.

But, again, Kopp said, there is no real enforcement behind paying the $300 ticket.

Courage and Perry suggested that City Council could consider appealing the ordinance that allows districts to implement civil penalties for passing stopped buses. Walsh said that once the 2017-2018 school year data is received from the districts, City staff would give the committee another update and provide an opportunity for it to vote on consideration of repeal.

It’s unclear if the districts would begin to see revenue sharing under the programs new BusPatrol ownership. The company’s president David Poirier, declined to speak to specific, district-level contracts, but said revenue depends on a lot of factors including local regulations, fine size, population size, fine collection rate, and equipment costs.

“There’s a lot of variation,” Poirier said. “In the end, we’re the only ones writing the checks.”

Districts don’t have to pay BusPatrol (or previously BusGuard) anything for the new cameras, but they were expecting some kind of revenue sharing after the initial costs of the equipment and install was covered, Walsh said.

Revenue exploitation is not what BusPatrol is about, Poirier said, it’s about saving lives.

“We’re not some greedy company, we’re totally focused on student safety,” he said. His company has found that “98 percent of people that get a ticket don’t get a second one … it’s a better lesson than hitting a kid.”

More than a dozen other Texas cities have passed civil penalty ordinances for bus stop-arm violations since 2012, including Dallas, Austin, and San Marcos.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...