Montana News

Dec 4, 2013 3:24 PM by Sanjay Talwani - MTN News

Board will consider mandatory background checks for Montana school bus drivers

HELENA - Montana school bus drivers suffered a blow to their reputation last spring when a legislative audit found that not all of them fulfilled the legal requirement that they be of "good moral character."

In fact, eight of the 1,435 active drivers in the state had some kind of record that could be considered "immoral conduct" that would have jeopardized their jobs, had they been teachers.

In response, the MT Office of Public Instruction is drafting a rule that would mandate that school districts run criminal background checks on their drivers before employment.

That could filter out a few suspect characters, although many districts, especially larger ones, already run checks on all staff, including bus drivers.

The Montana Association of School Boards figures the screening could begin even earlier -- when drivers get their Commercial Driver's Licenses and the special designation for school bus driving.

"So the state of Montana is aware that this person is seeking to become employed or certainly licensed to drive a school bus," said Lance Melton, executive director of MASB. "That's a real good place right there to lay down these qualifications, to conduct the background check."

The MT Department of Justice has wide authority to examine confidential criminal information of license applicants, Melton said.

School districts have a further obligation to check records beyond criminal history, such as employment history, as they would do regarding anyone who has contact with children, he said.

He doesn't believe there will be significant opposition to OPI's proposed rule -- for a name-based criminal background check -- when it goes before the Board of Public Education in January.

School districts wouldn't have the same authority as law enforcement authorities to examine confidential criminal justice information, but the two-layer background check -- at licensing and at hiring -- would likely "just immediately stopping anyone who might be a bad actor from even coming and trying to trick the school district into hiring them."

The legislative audit made one recommendation OPI doesn't agree with: that OPI perform annual checks with the Department of Justice of bus drivers across the state.

Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff at OPI, told the School and Local Government Interim Committee Monday that background checks of staff are the responsibility of employers -- namely the individual school districts.

"I think it's really important to recognize that the employer of bus driver is the school district and it really should reside there in terms of the responsibility for knowing whether their bus driver is qualified, both in terms of good moral character and in terms of the acceptable driving record," she said.

She noted that OPI doesn't do background checks on teachers, either, so the auditors' recommendation would have OPI giving more scrutiny to school bus drivers than for teachers, she said.

"One of our concerns is, we could be doing it once a year and there may have been an issue that occurred six or eight months earlier that should have been recognized at the school district level," she told the committee Monday. "The lag time there is pretty important. If there's an issue that need to be dealt with in terms of an employee at the school district, the employer should be dealing with that a lot faster than an annual periodic review."

Also, the Justice Department background checks cost money -- $10 per name, although the department reviewed a large batch of driver names free of charge for the legislative audit. So, Quinlan, said, the Legislature should appropriate the funds if it wants OPI to order those checks.

Teachers pass separate background checks upon being licensed, at their own expense, in addition to any further checks performed by school districts

OPI's proposed rule will head for the Board of Public Education in January, starting a process that could take 90 days or more.

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