TRENTON – Two bills signed on Monday will close some of the loopholes identified in an award-winning research by Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK of the “rogue” private school bus industry operators who regularly put children at risk without penalty.
Governor Phil Murphy signed Bill A-5818 on Monday, which publicly identifies the owners of a previously banned school bus operator and prohibits school authorities from awarding them contracts. Reasons for a ban are violations of state laws, the hiring of unauthorized or disqualified drivers or unsatisfactory performance.
The second bill, A-5817, increases the fines for school bus operators who put unqualified drivers behind the wheel of a school bus to a fine of $ 15,000 for third and further offenses. Earlier state law only covered general unskilled commercial drivers, including truck drivers. The fines set out in A-5817 are specific to school bus drivers.
The bill also states that a contractor cannot claim to have unknowingly broken the law in order to avoid paying the fine.
Related:New bills would close dangerous loopholes in the school bus industry
Both bills were passed unanimously by the New Jersey State Senate and General Assembly in June. They were sponsored primarily by Sens. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen, and Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, and Congregation members Dan Benson, D-Mercer, Lisa Swain and Chris Tully, D-Bergen.
In October 2020, the USA TODAY NETWORK Atlantic Group released a research that reveals loopholes in incorporation, inspection and public contract laws that allow questionable operators to circumvent child safety laws on school buses.
FOR SUBSCRIBERS ONLY:Read the entire study here!
The investigation found that some private school bus operators openly disregarded state laws and, on the rare occasions where they faced severe penalties, simply moved ownership to a spouse or other family member or changed the company’s name and continued to win millions in tax-funded contracts.
The project received the 2020 Lloyd P. Burns Award for Public Service in the New Jersey Press Association’s annual award competition.
Two days after the network published its investigation, the New Jersey attorney general charged the owners of F&A Transportation – one of the contractors highlighted in the investigation – of fraud and contract fraud for allegedly hiring unqualified bus drivers and failing to perform background checks.
Owners Ahmed Mahgoub and Faiza Ibrahim were charged with the charges in September 2021.
The legislative package passed on Monday only partially addresses the myriad of loopholes identified by the network. A third bill would create the position of an Ombudsman for School Bus Safety within the Department of Education, tasked with “coordinating enforcement and accountability” between government agencies responsible for school transportation such as the Motor Vehicle Commission, DOE and law enforcement agencies.
This bill, which was also sponsored by Diegnan, Lagana, Benson, Swain and Tully, never got a vote in the Senate or in the Assembly.
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering local New Jersey news, marijuana legalization, transportation, and a little bit of everything else. He has won several awards that his parents are very proud of. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on twitter.