Strickland signs transportation budget

COLUMBUS – Gov. Ted Strickland on Saturday signed the state’s two-year, $7.8 billion transportation budget but vetoed a provision on charter school busing that traditional public schools said would make them lose too much money.

The transportation budget also imposes tougher regulations on school bus drivers over objections by the state’s largest school employees union.

It’s the first piece of legislation Strickland has agreed to sign since the Democrat took office in January. The bill, which provides funding for highway and road projects for the next two years beginning in July, unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday.

Strickland, who has the power to cut certain provisions in spending bills without vetoing entire measures, took out the provision that allows charter schools to create their own transportation systems.

Charter schools are privately run schools that receive public money.

State law now requires that charters use the transportation system of the traditional school district in which they’re located, unless they can get an agreement to opt out. Just like the public money that follows the students, the state transportation dollars would then follow them to the charters.

“I am concerned that there was not sufficient debate about the impact or costs of this provision to our school districts,” Strickland said in his veto message. “Several of Ohio’s school districts have expressed concern that this item could divert significant funds from their budgets.”

Karen Tabor, a spokeswoman for Republican House Speaker Jon Husted, said Friday that Husted is disappointed over Strickland’s line-item veto but looks forward to working with the governor on finding ways to improve transportation for charter school students.

The transportation budget, for the financial year starting July 1, had to be signed by Saturday so that it would be enacted in time for bonds to be let, Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said Saturday. Strickland signed the bill at the governor’s residence.

Strickland has called Ohio’s implementation of the charter school movement a dismal failure. In his proposed two-year, $53 billion general budget, released earlier this month, he calls for a moratorium on expanding charter schools and a ban on allowing for-profit companies to run them.

The governor agreed with another change lawmakers made to his transportation proposal, toughening regulations on bus drivers.

The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest school employees’ union, and other education groups had opposed the stepped-up regulations, saying they are too narrow and arbitrary and should be open to more debate.

Lawmakers were motivated by the January arrest of a Columbus schools bus driver who police said had a cocaine-filled syringe on board while children were riding the bus. The district, and others around the state, discovered after the arrest that the backgrounds of drivers employed by outside bus companies often were not being thoroughly checked.

One provision in the law bars school bus owners from allowing anyone to drive a bus or van for seven years after certain traffic violations, including driving under the influence or committing homicide or another felony with a vehicle.

A second provision requires owners of a school bus or van to obtain seven-year driving record checks on all their drivers and annual records thereafter. Current policy requires a six-year review.

“Everybody’s concerned with ensuring our youngest Ohioans are always kept as safe as possible,” Dailey said.

Messages seeking comment were left Friday and Saturday for a spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association.

The bill also places a deputy inspector general within the Ohio Department of Transportation to act as an internal watchdog over the awarding of highway contracts and to ensure that all ethics policies are followed.