Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1960 No. 113 - Apr 19 1960
Attorney General John J. O'Connell


The board of directors of a school district is not subject to personal liability for accidents occurring out of the use of school buses where the use is authorized by the board of directors as a definite and proper part of the curriculum or educational program of the district.

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                                                                   April 19, 1960

Honorable Damon R. Canfield
State Representative, 15th District
Granger, Washington                                                                                          Cite as:  AGO 59-60 No. 113

Dear Sir:

            This is written in reply to your letter previously acknowledged in which you requested an opinion of this office on the following question:

            To what extent are school board members individually liable for possible injury or damage incurred incident to the use of school buses for extra-curricular [[extracurricular]]activities?

            We answer this question in the manner set forth in our analysis.


            A school district is a municipal corporation and, as such, has only those powers expressly granted by the legislature, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers granted, and those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the municipal corporation.  Seattle High School Ch. No. 200 v. Sharples, 159 Wash. 424, 293 Pac. 994 (1930);Juntila v. Everett School District No. 24, 178 Wash. 637, 35 P. (2d) 78 (1934).  The governing body of the district, empowered to exercise the foregoing powers, is, of course, the elected board of directors (RCW 28.58.080).  State ex rel.Griffiths v. Superior Court, 177 Wash. 619, 33 P. (2d) 94 (1934).

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            The general powers and duties of the boards of directors of all classes of school districts are prescribed in RCW 28.58.100 which provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

            "Every board of directors, unless otherwise specially provided by law, shall:

            ". . .

            "(11) Provide and pay for transportation of children to and from school whether such children live within or without the district when in its judgment the best interests of the district will be subserved thereby, but the board is not compelled to transport any pupil living within two miles of the schoolhouse.

            "When children are transported from one school district to another the board of directors of the respective districts may enter into a written contract providing for a division of the cost of such transportation between the districts.

            "Whenever any school children are transported by the school district in its own motor vehicles and by its own employees, the board may provide insurance to protect the district against loss by reason of theft, fire or property damage to the motor vehicle, andto protect the district against loss by reason of liability of the district to persons from the operation of such motor vehicle.

            "If the transportation of children is arranged for by contract of the district with some person, the board may require such contractor to procure liability, property, collision or other insurance for the motor vehicle used in such transportation;" (Emphasis supplied)

            It is an oft-quoted rule of statutory construction that in arriving at legislative intent, the first resort of the court is to the content and subject matter of the legislation because the intention of the lawmakers is to be deduced from the words used.  Hatzenbuhler v. Harrison, 49 Wn. (2d) 691, 306 P. (2d) 745 (1956);Guinness v. State, 40 Wn. (2d) 677, 246 P (2d) 433 (1952).  Where a statute  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] is plain and unambiguous, obviously it furnishes a rule of construction beyond which the court cannot go.  See Parkhurst v. Everett, 51 Wn. (2d) 292, 318 P. (2d) 327 (1957); In re Baker's Estate, 49 Wn. (2d) 609, 304 P. (2d) 1051 (1956).

            Applying these rules to the above statute, it is clear that the legislature has expressly authorized the board of directors of a school district to "provide and pay for transportation of children to and from school" and to provide insurance "to protect the district against loss by reason of liability of the district to persons from the operation of such motor vehicle."

            Thus, whenever school buses are operated under the authority of RCW 28.58.100 (11),supra, there cannot be, except possibly under extraordinary circumstances, any personal liability of the directors for any cause of action arising from the negligent operation of its buses.

            Therefore, in order to resolve the question you have submitted it is necessary to determine whether the use of the bus at the time of the assumed accident comes within the purview of RCW 28.58.100 (11), supra.  There have been several opinions issued by this office on this subject through the years which we will now consider.

            In an opinion written to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction on April 4, 1939 [[1939-40 OAG 51]], a copy of which is enclosed for your information, this office stated:

            "In 1930, on March the fourth of that year, the Attorney General's office had presented to it the question of legality of the school district assuming the transportation charges of athletic teams going to and from games after school where such games were treated as a part of the physical training and credits were given for participation therein.  There was also included in the question the validity of paying the expenses incident to the taking of a group of pupils 'to the University Museum or city library or some other point in the city to learn or observe at first hand things which may be considered of educational value.'  The Attorney General, in answering these questions, used the following language:

            "'Your first and fourth questions (matters above indicated) are more difficult, inasmuch as it appears that the transportation undertaken under  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] the state of facts given by you is associated with functions for which class-room credit in certain courses of study may be awarded.  As we understand it, partial credit in physical training may be granted on account of athletic contests such as football and basketball games, etc., and we assume that the transportation referred to in your fourth question is in connection with class work, although it does not specifically say so.

            "'We are of the opinion that whenever it is necessary to transport pupils from the schoolhouse to a certain other point or points for the purpose of completing class work required by the school curriculum, such transportation is a proper charge against the school district as the point or points at which such class work is conducted would certainly be as much a part of the school as the schoolhouse proper.'

            "By reason of the growing and increased use of the school transportation service as hereinbefore indicated, it becomes necessary that somewhere the line be drawn definitely fixing what part of such service may be paid for from the current school funds.

            "The statutes and the constitution provided that such funds 'shall beexclusively applied to the support of the common schools.'  (Italics ours.)

            "With this language in mind, one must necessarily pause and consider, when he observes the school bus rolling along the highway many miles from its home district, whether such use is for the support of the common schools.

            "We believe the limitation placed in the quotation from the opinion just cited furnishes a generous allowance for the payment from the common school fund.  We certainly do not approve of any more generous use of such funds.  We believe the rule the writer of the opinion has laid down goes the limit, beyond which payment of the costs of pupil transportation is not permissible or allowable from the school funds."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            Thereafter, on March 8, 1954, in a letter written to the Honorable Hewitt Henry, Prosecuting Attorney, Thurston County, the writer concluded:

            ". . . Our interpretation of RCW 28.58.100, subsection 11, is that the district is liable to furnish transportation to students only 'to and from school.'  This term has been amplified in times past to include transportation for activities during school hours for which academic school credit is given, such as an industrial field trip, etc."

            Our most recent opinion was issued on April 9, 1956, (AGO 55-57 No. 242, a copy of which is enclosed) at the request of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Again we were called upon to clarify the limitations or restrictions on the use of school buses.  We said:

            "The grant of authority to the local boards must be confined to the standards prescribed by the statute.  The statutory standard is contained in the words 'transportation of children to and from school.'  To determine the latitude available to local boards it is first necessary to define the word 'school'.

            "We are convinced that the legislature had in mind a more inclusive meaning than schoolhouse.  The fact that the statute employs the term 'school' as above quoted and uses the word 'schoolhouse' in connection with the two-mile provision in the same sentence is, in our view, significant.

            "'School' is a generic term and denotes an institution for instruction or education and is not measured by the walls of a building.  State v. Kalaher, Wisc. 129 N.W. 1060.

            "Having determined that the local boards must decide where their buses may travel we offer the following counsel and suggestions for their consideration:

            "1. School buses may not be leased or loaned to individuals or organizations.  See the opinion of this office to the governor, dated July 11, 1942, which denied such authority even for the purpose  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] of providing farm labor transportation during the war emergency.

            "2. No charge may be made of the passengers.  School buses are licensed upon a tax-exempt basis under RCW 46.16.020.  To charge a fare would cause such vehicles to acquire a 'for hire' status as defined by RCW 46.04.190.

            "3. Trips outside the district must have the specific authorization of the local board.  To justify such trips the board should find:

            "(a) That the purpose of the trip is to permit the students to participate in a school activity;

            "(b) That the school's participation in such activity is sponsored, directed and supervised by school district authorities as a definite [and proper] part of the curriculum or educational program of the district; and

            "(c) The student participants to be transported must be required to participate in the activity as a part of the curriculum or educational program."  (Emphasis supplied)

            Accordingly, it is our opinion that when school buses are operated by school districts within the standards or authority recognized in the foregoing opinions, the school directors would not be subject to any personal liability for accidents which occur in connection with the operation thereof.

            We do not believe that in operating school buses the board of directors has been vested with any discretion by the legislature except perhaps within the area ofuse recognized in our earlier opinions.  We have outlined theuses which we feel are authorized and presuming, as we must, that the school directors, as public officers, will exercise their powers and duties in accordance with the law, and our construction thereof, we should never reach the question of personal liability.  Furthermore, we do not consider this as one of the proper functions of this office.

            As stated above, personal liability may only arise where the directorsexceed their authority.  In an early opinion written to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, dated August 21, 1897, this office said:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 7]]

            "Referring to the principal inquiry contained in his letter, asking, 'can we, as directors, sign warrants without laying ourselves liable as individuals, as well as directors, when our district is in debt beyond the limit,' I am not willing to give an opinion.  If the district is in debt beyond the limit, the directors have no power to issue warrants, andI am not willing to advise any officer of this state, or of one of the subdivisions of its government upon an hypothesis which assumes primarily his intent to violate the law."  (Emphasis supplied)

            In passing, it should be mentioned, since we are considering the statutory authority governing the use of school buses, that at the last session of the legislature a bill was presented which would have liberalized or expanded the power of the district in respect to the operation of school buses.  However, this bill was not enacted into law.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.  However, if you have any further questions concerning this matter, please feel free to contact this office.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General