Students should prepare to buckle up on their way to and from school this fall as Missoula County Public Schools moves forward with plans to add seat belts to the district's buses.

The district currently uses 72 buses owned by Beach Transportation. They plan to retrofit 30 of those buses with seat belts for the fall, and phase out the remaining buses over the next few years as Beach Transportation typically buys seven or eight new buses each year.

This year, the district will pay Beach $58,800 to help purchase seven new buses with seat belts for use beginning this fall, according to Pat McHugh, the district's executive director of business and operations. The price tag to retrofit the 30 buses is a bit larger, at $117,000 per year for three years.

McHugh said the new seat belts will be covered by a separate route cost of $3.47 per day in the transportation fund, and said the buses will only be for use by the district. The district is ironing out remaining details in the contract as it moves toward seat belts in an effort to increase safety.

In Montana, seat belts are not required by law on school buses, yet it's illegal to drive a car or ride as a passenger without a seat belt.

In a previous board meeting, former district superintendent Mark Thane said although there have been significant improvements to school bus safety over the years, the absence of seat belts leaves students in danger.

“We've come to clearly understand that this is a student-life safety matter,” Thane said. “I think it's incumbent upon us to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the students on the buses as we transport them to and from school.”

The plan to add seat belts to the school buses comes as the district is finalizing a new five-year contract with Beach Transportation, a family-owned company that has served the district for 75 years.

Also under the new contract trustees are anticipated to formalize soon, Beach is set to receive a 2.5% increase in pay from the district each year for the first three years, with the remaining two years subject to negotiation.

"I think everybody's super excited about seat belts coming to the buses," Trustee Grace Decker said at the meeting. "I think it's a great example of being able to find the funding ... for the things we prioritize in the district."

Decker said that as the board talks more about busing, she thinks it's important to revisit conversations about implementing later start times.

"If we can find funding for the things we prioritize, our community spoke loud and clear that that's something they want us to not drop," she said.

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