EBR school buses to get cameras

Fourteen months after deciding to test traffic cameras on 30 school buses, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board agreed Thursday to add cameras to 50 buses at a time until they are on all 650 of the school system’s buses.

The board, however, asked for a report after every 50 installations and wants the school system to use some of the money raised from traffic ticket fines to pay for a public information campaign.

The vote to expand the pilot program was 10-0. Board member Jill Dyason was absent.

The cameras are largely meant to catch motorists who speed past when a bus stops to pick up or drop off children, but also are being used to monitor student behavior and driver performance.

The call for an incremental approach of putting cameras on 50 buses at a time and to provide regular reports to the board was in response to concerns raised by School Board member Craig Freeman.

“Why would we expand from a pilot when we don’t have concrete data on how we’ve done up until now?” Freeman asked.

The idea of using some of the money from traffic ticket fines for a public information campaign was in response to concerns by board member David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

“If we’re just writing people tickets, we’re not making anything safer,” Tatman said.

Ware-Jackson said she suspects many drivers, like her, haven’t taken a license test in years and are fuzzy about some of the rules.

“I couldn’t tell you how many feet you need to stop behind a bus. I just know you need to stop,” Ware-Jackson said.

The traffic cameras are being supplied and installed by a Harahan-based company called Force Multiplier Solutions, formerly known as Busguard. The company has more than 2,000 bus cameras in operation, most of them in Dallas and Jefferson Parish.

The company pays for all costs, including the monitoring of the video, in return for collecting 70 percent of the ticket money. The school system receives 20 percent, and the Sheriff’s Office, which has to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to issue a ticket, receives 10 percent.

Under the city-parish’s ordinances, the cost of driving through a stop by a school bus as it is picking up or dropping off children in East Baton Rouge Parish is $300. Drivers who contest their tickets must do so through city-parish government.

Catherine Fletcher, chief business operations officer, said the school system so far has received two checks that total a combined $7,031, or 20 percent of the proceeds. That means at least 100 tickets have been issued so far generating at least $35,000 in revenue.

School officials said the new bus traffic cameras would have raised more money if not for a slow installation process.

At a Nov. 1 School Board meeting, Casey Ponder, a regional operations manager for Force Multiplier Solutions, detailed problems that his company had in getting the pilot program up and running. He said the problems started at the first meeting he had in fall 2011 with then Transportation Director Bill Talmadge.

“He told us the system was forced upon him, that it was too sophisticated, and Baton Rouge was not ready for a system as sophisticated as ours,” Ponder said.

Ponder said that in the following months, Talmadge and his staff were not helpful in making sure his company had access to the buses so the cameras could be installed.

“It wasn’t until the summer that we were able to finish the install of 30 buses,” Ponder said.

Ponder also said this company couldn’t get access to the buses to maintain the cameras.

Talmadge has retired since the problems came to light, and the system’s purchasing director, Gary Reese, was tapped to become interim director of transportation since mid-October. The school system has placed ads seeking a new permanent transportation director.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, said relations with the company are much better now.

“There were some challenges,” Rutledge said. “Some of those were staff-driven. Those have been addressed.”

After Thursday night’s meeting, Ponder said his company hopes to quickly to expand the cameras to the school system’s entire fleet. He said the company has already purchased more than $4 million worth of camera equipment and is ready to start installing them immediately.

Rutledge said the city-parish government is encouraging the school system to add new bus cameras slowly so it can ramp up to process the increased number of tickets it will likely be receiving.