Concerns raised about deal that put cameras in Montgomery Co. school buses

Montgomery County, Maryland’s inspector general has issued a report that raises concerns about the agreement that put cameras — including exterior stop-arm cameras — in county school system buses.

Under the 2016 agreement, first with Force Multiplier Solutions, now with Bus Patrol America, Montgomery County Public Schools had cameras installed in the entire fleet — all 1,387 buses — at no cost.

In return, the revenues generated from violations when drivers pass school buses would go to Force Multiplier Solutions. That would remain the case until the bus camera company recovered the cost of installing the cameras, estimated at $18 million.

In his report, Inspector General Edward Blansitt noted that agreement was different from the arrangement that served as the model for the Montgomery County deal. The deal was first presented to the school system by members of the Montgomery County Police Department as part of a public safety initiative.

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Blansitt explained that the Montgomery County school system entered into a “bridge contract” using an existing agreement between Force Multiplier Solutions and a Louisiana school district. In that agreement, the East Baton Rouge Public School Board gets 20% of the revenues from tickets, and the local sheriff’s department gets 10%.

Montgomery County, however, doesn’t get a revenue split with the company. Under the county’s plan, the entire cost of a $250 ticket issued to drivers who pass stopped school buses went to Force Multiplier Solutions.

Jean Souliere, CEO of Bus Patrol America, said in an email to WTOP that his firm wasn’t contacted by the inspector general about the report. Souliere said Bus Patrol took over the county’s school bus safety contract from Force Multiplier Solutions in July 2017. The terms of the agreement are the same.

The inspector general’s report also stated that given the way the Montgomery County agreement is written, the revenue-sharing formula remains undetermined, and according to Blansitt, “It is unclear to us when, or even if, the county will recover its investment in this program or what happens to any revenue stream after [an agreement is reached].”

At a meeting of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety and Education committees, Council member Tom Hucker raised questions based on the inspector general’s report to a panel made up of county school transportation officials and police.

“Clearly, when you read it, I think any one of us would have concerns about the decision-making and the content of the contract as it’s described in the IG report,” Hucker said.

Todd Watkins, transportation director with the Montgomery County school system, said the contract entered into with Force Multiplier Solutions — later taken over by Bus Patrol — was preferred by school and police officials because it was “the only camera enforcement company that came anywhere close to a whole-fleet solution.”

Other companies, he said, offered to put cameras in a portion of the bus fleet.

When Hucker asked about the details of the contract and whether Montgomery County would ever recover the costs associated with the program, Assistant Police Chief David Anderson said, “We have an audit underway, which the vendor is completely understanding of, so that we can go into determining and verifying the financials that we have right now.”

Hucker responded by referring to the deal that the bus camera company has with the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. “They get immediate ticket revenue for the school board and their sheriff’s office — and we don’t,” he said.

There are two more years remaining in the existing contract, said Anderson, who told Hucker that when Montgomery County entered into the agreement, “we thought this was a fair arrangement.”

Anderson told Hucker he’d like to talk about the details of the agreement in a closed session as opposed to an open hearing. “We have other vendors who are watching this now. We have two years left on this contract,” Anderson said.

Response to the IG’s report

Montgomery County schools’ Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman wrote a response to the IG’s report, saying that the IG “disregarded the extensive due diligence” the school system and police department took to find “a cost effective solution” to school bus safety.

Regarding the IG’s concerns about whether the county would ever receive any revenues from tickets issued to drivers who pass stopped school buses, Zuckerman wrote that the school system, county officials and the vendor are engaged in an audit “to review the current total cost of investment” and to identify when a revenue-sharing plan could start.

Other systems

Bus Patrol has a contract with the Manassas City school system in Virginia, which has a fleet of 60 buses. Under that five-year contract, Bus Patrol gets 60% of the revenues from tickets issued to violators of the stop-arm camera, while the school system gets 40%.

The district’s executive director of finance and operations, Andy Hawkins, said the arrangement works well for the school district, and that the district would never want to take ownership of the cameras.

“After these five years are over with, the cameras are going to be outdated, and it’s going to be time to invest in more cameras,” Hawkins said. “I’m assuming with the way that technology changes, it will require another investment to replace all of the camera systems throughout the fleet.”

As far as safety is concerned, Hawkins said having the stop-arm cameras on school buses has made “a significant difference.” Since installing the stop-arm cameras, he said they’ve seen a drop of between 40% and 50% in the number of violations recorded annually.

Manassas City’s school district is small compared with the county systems surrounding it, Hawkins said, yet they were seeing “thousands” of violations by drivers passing stopped school buses each year.

Now, Hawkins said such incidents are less frequent, and he credits the cameras for helping with this ongoing problem.

“That’s just way too many,” Hawkins said. “The school board and our city partners are doing everything that they can to reduce the number of people passing stopped school buses.”

Later this month, Hawkins expects to brief the school board on the program with data gathered over the three years that the contract has been in place.

More than just stop arms

The Bus Patrol America camera systems include interior cameras that record what’s happening inside a school bus.

Anderson told members of Montgomery County Council’s Education and Public Safety committees that they’ve had “some very high profile criminal acts with students as victims” and that the camera system “captured those acts, and are going to put those people in prison.”

In Manassas City, Hawkins said cameras and a panic alarm that are included in the Bus Patrol system allows for alerts to be made when there’s an emergency — whether it’s someone trying to get on to a school bus, or a bus driver suffering a medical emergency.

Once the button is activated, Hawkins said, “a signal is sent back to the bus shop, and we can use the cameras to see what’s happening in the school bus” and then alert first responders.

“That’s a wonderful safety feature that’s also offered with this program,” Hawkins said.

Zuckerman, Montgomery County schools’ chief operating officer, also touted the value of having cameras inside county school buses, referring to a case in which a bus operator was charged with a number of crimes, including second-degree rape and sexual abuse of a minor.

The defendant in that case is expected to go to trial in October, according to court documents.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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