Portsmouth's Rep. Gordon sponsors bill to eliminate bus monitors

There is no word in English for parents who have lost children. We have tags for other familial bereavement relationships like widow and orphan, but the death of a child is, in our language, literally unspeakable.

It would therefore seem to be a reasonable goal of social policy to do anything possible to prevent such a horrific outcome. And if a program exists which has prevented such tragedies for 24 years, one might expect it to be self-justifying. And yet, despite evidence of success, once again, we find the RI General Assembly considering a bill which would remove the requirement for bus monitors on K-5 school buses.

Bill H5186, co-sponsored by freshman Portsmouth Rep. Dan Gordon (and Reps. Costa, Newberry, and JP O`Neill) goes to the House Municipal Government Committee this Thursday, March 3 at about 4pm in Rm. 203.

When contacted by e-mail today to explain the aim of the legislation, why it should be passed, and what he would say to parents concerned about safety, Rep Gordon said:

"In all fairness to the prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Costa, and to House Majority Whip O'Neill, I will withhold comment on H5186 until they have an opportunity to testify in their own words, in the committee hearing."

Take a brave stand there, Rep. Gordon.

Middletown residents Sophia and Bill Pendergast, who lost their daughter Vanessa in a school bus accident in 1985, led the movement to enact bus monitor legislation, and they have fought every attempt, over the years, to cut the program. I reached Ms. Pendergast by e-mail today and asked about their reaction to this latest threat:

Bill and I intend to be there to lobby for the continuation of this life saving mandate, but don’t be fooled to think that our voices will help to save this mandate in these tumultuous economic times.

No child has been killed since this legislation was enacted in 1986 and all school bus accidents have been reduced by 65%. The last accident in RI occurred [on June 5, 2009], when 7 year old Ryan O’Connor was struck by a car passing the school bus he had just exited. His monitor had called in sick that day...[]


If you cannot attend, offer to watch your friend’s child or call or email your Rep. If you need a ride call me and I will help to arrange it. Follow this link to find your Rep’s info: sos.ri.gov/vic –then fill in the required fields to find your Reps telephone and email. And call Rep Jon Brien, Chair, House Municipal Government 401-766-9877 or Peter Martin, Newport, Vice Chair, House Municipal Government 924-2402.

If you find yourself wondering why education always seems to be where politicians looking to make cuts, there is an explanation.

In a recent NY Times op-ed, "Leaving Children Behind," Paul Krugman explains that services for children "account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level," which is why they always bear the brunt of spending cuts. Despite the high-sounding rhetoric from small-government types about 'teh children' when talking about the crushing burden of government spending, Krugman notes, "In practice, however, when advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear."

Do bus monitors guarantee that no accidents will befall our children? Unfortunately, no. Can you mount a cost-benefit analysis showing that the $12M spend state-wide offsets an occasional wrongful death payout? Probably not. But is there anyone who will seriously argue that the vigilant presence of monitors has no impact on safety? No matter how incremental that improvement, when dealing with the safety of our children in the care of the state, I would argue that we can do no less than our absolute best, ignoring the voices who argue for acceptable risk and cost reduction. This is not the place to cut corners.

Bill full text (pdf)
Bill status page on RI General Assembly site
Sophia Prendergast's 2009 ProJo LTE
ProJo story on hearing in 2009

Full disclosure: It should be blindingly obvious, but I believe that bus monitors are a worthwhile allocation of my tax dollars.