District to phase out 15-passenger vans used to transport students

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The Moffat County School District is phasing 15-passenger vans out of its fleet of vehicles used for transporting local students.

In a presentation at Monday night's Moffat County Board of Education meeting, Transportation Department Director James Baptist said the seven 15-passenger vans currently used by the school district are insured through the 2005-2006 school year.

After that, 15-passenger minibuses and full-sized buses would replace those vehicles.

The use of 15-passenger vans by school districts at a local, state and national level has been criticized in recent years because of their likelihood to roll over.

"The publicity is correct," Baptist said. "They will roll over. If you have to swerve, they will roll over."

While the vans are proven not to be as safe as buses, they are considerably cheaper, costing half as much as a $40,000 minibus. Coaches or teachers can also drive them, whereas the minibuses require trained bus drivers.

While Baptist admitted that vans were not as safe, he had numbers compiled from his 10 years as transportation director to demonstrate that the district has not had any problems with the vans.

The seven vans used by the district were dispatched 351 times last year and carried students a total of 125,000 miles.

In 10 years the vans have carried the students more than a million miles and in that time there have been five minor accidents, Baptist reported.

"We go above and beyond in training the drivers," he said.

And every driver is required to pass a test before they can drive a van, he said.

Because vans are more likely to roll over at high speeds on the highway,

Board President Phil Hastings asked if the distances the vans travel could be reduced.

"I don't know if we have the drivers or the buses," Baptist said. "That's why the vans are there because they are used."

Baptist said ideally the school district would only have buses.

"Give me four more buses and five more drivers and I'd be happy," Baptist said. "We do the best we can with the number of drivers we have."

But Superintendent Pete Bergmann said replacing all the vans with buses right now would strain the budget too much.

"To take them off the road tomorrow would impact us to the point that it would cripple us," Bergmann said. "We plan to reduce the use as much as we can and continue to phase them out."

Efforts continue to be made at the state and federal levels to cut down on van use by school districts.

Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, introduced a bill earlier this year that calls for a $25,000 fine for school districts that buy new or used vans.

The bill calls for similar penalties for dealerships that sell the vehicles to school districts.

The bill is currently in the transportation committee awaiting a hearing, according to Udall's office.

State law already says that schools cannot buy vans made before 1994.

Hastings said the message the government is sending is that the vans are not safe and their use needs to be discontinued.

"We're at a point now where the federal government is telling us they're not safe but we continue to put them on the road," he said.

Baptist maintained that the vans are not proven to be as safe as buses, but said the district pays close attention to making sure responsible, well trained people are behind the wheel of the vans.

"Anytime you put one on the road I'm going to worry about them because they can roll," he said. "But they've gone 1,000,000 miles since I've been here."

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