Chesterfield County Public Schools plans to fit buses with cameras to catch drivers who ignore their blinking stop signs and GPS monitors to help plan the routes they take and provide real-time information on their location.
The school division also is working to update its aging bus fleet — about one in five Chesterfield school buses was built before 2000 — by spending $14.7 million to buy 174 buses during the next five years.
Administrators told the School Board during a Tuesday presentation that the cameras and location monitors will pay for themselves.
Andy Hawkins, assistant superintendent for business and finance, said he initially doubted the need for cameras mounted outside of school buses because he thought very few people passed them when they were stopped for children. But a pilot program with cameras mounted on five of the county’s buses for 32 school days between December and March caught 216 violations, or nearly seven per day.
The cameras record video every time the stop-sign arm extends on a bus. Those videos would be reviewed by the company supplying the cameras, and any violation would be forwarded to Chesterfield police.
A $250 citation would then be mailed to the address affiliated with the car’s license plate. Virginia law requires that the entire fine amount go to the school system. Chesterfield schools would keep $85 of every ticket and use the rest to pay Redflex Student Guardian, the Arizona-based company that developed the technology.
The Chesterfield Board of Supervisors must pass an ordinance allowing the program before it can begin.
Hawkins said three school systems in Virginia, including Hopewell City Schools, have begun using the cameras. Several others, including Richmond and Petersburg city schools, are exploring the technology with pilot programs.
School Board Chairwoman Dianne H. Smith said bus drivers have long complained of drivers who ignore their stop signs, but offenders can be difficult to catch. The videos would add a level of proof and, in theory, make drivers less likely to endanger children.
“When enough people realize you’re going to get caught when you pass our school buses because we’re enforcing this, people are going to pay more attention,” said School Board member Carrie E. Coyner. “The goal is to have zero offenders.”
The plan to add GPS monitors will cost the school system about $600,000, to be paid out of reserves, but Hawkins said it will likely pay for itself within a year and comes with a slew of advantages.
All of the school division’s 1,268 bus routes are currently prepared by hand in a painstaking process that requires large maps and pushpins. The GPS system would identify the best routes in much less time. That would allow the schools to streamline the 26,000 miles buses drive every school day.
“We have been told we will have return on investment in one year,” Hawkins said. “They believe we’re going to become more efficient. We may have less bus drivers and bus routes.”
Another bonus to the GPS tracking would be real-time information on every bus. Parents would be able to download an app on their phones that would show exactly where their child’s school bus is and what time it is expected to be at their front door. The school division also could use the technology to send email alerts to parents when buses are running late.
The monitors also would perform a diagnostic check every morning at 3 a.m. to make sure any issues that would prevent a bus from cranking could be dealt with earlier. Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome said school was delayed on cold days twice this year in part because leaders were not confident many of the buses would start.
The cameras could be installed on buses by the beginning of next school year, while the GPS plan would take longer to be fully developed.
Robert Wingfield, director of pupil transportation, said the buses would run for a year with GPS installed — which could happen as early as this summer — to collect data before routes would be changed.
School Board members on Tuesday were unanimously supportive of the camera and GPS plans.
“I think this falls in the no-brainer category,” said School Board member Thomas J. Doland.
In other business, the School Board on Tuesday selected BCWH as the architect for additions and renovations to Monacan High School. BCWH was in charge of previous renovations at Midlothian High School.