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Duchesne officials OK high school vans

For years the Duchesne County School District has taken a lot of flak for sending out school buses carrying just a handful of students to compete in an extracurricular activity.

Many patrons felt the expense of running the school bus hundreds of miles when it wasn't full was unjustified. School district officials too, were concerned about the practice. But they were concerned that speech and drama students or chess club members have the same right to participate in extracurricular events as the 45-members of a school's football team.Last year when a 12-member committee, assembled exclusively to examine ways to cut special transportation costs in the district, came up with a recommendation to purchase vans for trips involving just a few students, the school board approved.

The four eight-passenger vans the district ordered have arrived, but at least one school district patron says she believes the district is putting kids at risk by allowing travel to and from school activities in vans rather than buses.

Duchesne resident Dorothy Evans has also been to the school board to question whether those allowed to drive the vans will be properly qualified.

"That's where my concern lies, in the safety of these kids. Buses have additional safety features that vans do not have," Evans said. "I'm all for it as long as there are qualified drivers behind the wheel, but I am still concerned about safety."

Strict federal safety transportation laws don't apply to vans that carry 10 or fewer passengers. For instance, those who drive vans won't have to obtain a commercial driver's license, and there are no mandated safety inspections for vans as there are for school buses.

District Superintendent John Aland says those concerns have already been addressed. School district employees are only eligible drive school vans after they pass a Safe Driving Plus Course and attend two driver safety courses annually. They must have a current driver's license that has passed a background check and they can only transport students to approved school activities.

Unlike bus drivers, who are paid for each extracurricular trip they make, school employees who drive the vans won't be compensated for their time.

According to Aland, the school board has also made sure that each van will undergo strict maintenance checks and safety inspections.

Each of the district's four high schools will have a van for its use.

If a school should need more than one van it may borrow one from another school. The school will be required to pay the cost of gas, but will not be assessed a mileage charge. All trips by van must be pre-approved at least a week in advance.

Altamont High Principal Joe Haslem says he's pleased with the school board's decision to purchase the vans.

"I am excited about the potential. There are some safety concerns, but if we're careful and well-trained there are so many more positive aspects than negative," Haslem said.

He pointed to the time Altamont had about five students who traveled by bus to St. George to attend a forensics meet as an example of waste that would be trimmed by using vans. Such use will stretch budgets, he said.

Brent Huffman, Pupil Transportation Specialist for the State Office of Education, said he doesn't have figures on how many schools are using vans for small groups. At this point the Utah Standards Committee, which writes the standards for school buses and operations doesn't feel there is a need to regulate the use of vans by school districts, he said.

Despite the obvious safety risks of vans compared to school buses, he said, school districts must determine what their budgets can handle.

"When it comes to cost, vans win hands down, but what's more important, cost savings or safety? That's up to the school district."