There are at least 64 Montana school bus drivers with criminal records, including two with drunken-driving convictions within the last three years, legislative auditors said Thursday.
In addition, some school districts appear to be taking advantage of a mileage reimbursement policy in which larger buses receive a higher rate, including one district that uses a 54-seat school bus to transport two students who live in the same house.
Other school districts may be padding their claimed mileage, with auditors finding one bus route was half the distance for which the district was being reimbursed.
Those are among the findings in a school transportation funding and safety audit of the 2011-2012 school year presented to the Legislative Audit Committee.
The auditors recommended changes that include standard background checks for bus drivers and the use of global-positioning systems in each bus to more accurately track their mileage.
Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for the state Office of Public Instruction, said the agency agreed with recommendations that it improve its system of checking the accuracy of reimbursement claims, but it is unclear whether GPS devices would be a useful tool.
The agency will prepare a cost-benefit analysis on the use of GPS devices, she said.
OPI also plans to recommend the Board of Public Education create an administrative rule that requires districts to perform background checks on bus drivers, but the agency balked over a recommendation that it work with the state Department of Justice to conduct periodic reviews of employed drivers' criminal records.
Such periodic checks should be the responsibility of the school districts, not the state, Quinlan said.
The committee chairman, Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, said he was dissatisfied with Quinlan's answers and said OPI should look seriously at conducting periodic records checks and using GPS devices.
There are 2,760 people listed as bus drivers in OPI records, but only the 1,435 drivers named on driver reimbursement claim forms in 2012 were considered as "active drivers" for the audit.
The other 1,325 people may be inactive or substitute drivers, auditor Ross Johnson said.
The auditors gave the names of the active drivers to the state Department of Justice, which found a criminal history for 64 of them.
Eight of those drivers had either been arrested on a felony warrant from another jurisdiction, had repeat convictions or violated conduct rules to which teachers are held. A ninth driver was found to have an active arrest warrant.
Department of Justice officials expanded the search to all 2,760 people on the OPI roster, and found 123 with criminal histories, including one on the sexual and violent offender registry.
Quinlan said that person still works for a school district but is not a bus driver. She did not name the district.
Sixteen school bus drivers have been convicted of multiple moving traffic violations, and two drivers had drunken-driving convictions within the last three years of the study.
Johnson said he does not know whether those two people are still bus drivers.
Bus drivers are required by law to be of good moral character, but what that means is not entirely clear.
Auditors said some school districts have a policy of conducting background checks, but not all.
On the funding side, school districts are partially reimbursed by the state and counties for transporting school-age children who live farther than 3 miles from school.
School districts foot most of the $74 million bill for student transportation each year, but with 17.5 million miles logged by drivers transporting children across Montana's vast landscape, the approximately $17 million annually coming from the state helps defray their costs.
Auditors tested a sample of 227 bus routes to check their accuracy. What they found was minimal scrutiny of the claims filed.
The Dillon school district gave back $141,000 in reimbursements for miles that weren't actually part of one bus route.
Another district claimed a route was 117 miles a day, when it was actually 53 miles a day - a $6,188 difference for the 2011-2012 school year.
That case has been referred to OPI for further review and the district won't be disclosed until that review is completed, said Deputy Legislative Auditor Angus Maciver.
The audit also found the size of buses grew while the number of eligible riders shrunk since state lawmakers in 2003 based the reimbursement rates by bus size.
The rates range from 95 cents per mile for buses that carry fewer than 50 passengers to $1.80 per mile for buses carrying 80 or more passengers.
Over the past decade, since the rule change, the average bus size increased 11 percent, while the number of eligible riders actually declined 1.6 percent.
"Districts appear to be buying larger buses for purposes other than serving eligible riders," Johnson said.
The higher rates increased the cost to the state and counties by nearly $2 million.