District scores low on bus safety exam
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 28, 2013 1:46 PM
Wayne County Public Schools transportation employee Brandon Briggs checks over one of the county buses at the bus garage. His job is route maintenance. County school officials say they are having a difficult time keeping experienced mechanics on staff, leading to problems with maintaining the system's more than 200 buses.
For the second year in a row, the state's school bus inspection turned up safety concerns for buses in the Wayne County Public Schools fleet, which local officials are attributing in part to the economic downturn causing a high turnover among bus mechanics.
The state Department of Public Instruction is required to perform an annual inspection of school buses, making a random sample of buses from each route. The School Bus Defect Report for 2013 centers around the May 7 check.
"We're only looking at about 10 percent of the fleet and the purpose of that is to give the superintendent some feedback on the condition of the fleet," said Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services for DPI.
Among the more glaring findings on the latest report were oil on the exhaust, a potential fire hazard, tire tread wear and "multiple safety issues" on several of the buses, including low transmission fluid, loose wires, unsecured passenger seats and loose or damaged door handles on the emergency exit.
Graham explained that the scoring system is based on a 0-100 scale.
"Zero is a perfect score," he said.
Two years ago, the average score in the eastern part of the state was 47.2 Wayne County received a score of 33.95.
Last year, the local score climbed to 86, among the highest in the state, prompting a visit from Graham and the consultant that handled the inspection.
"We had a meeting with the superintendent and assistant superintendent because last year we saw a pretty big jump," he said.
This year the district fared slightly better, with a score of 78.
The state may be responsible for conducting a yearly inspection, but by law, school districts are required to inspect each bus every 30 days.
Graham said the official notification letter of the report has likely not yet been sent to the superintendent. A copy of the findings, however, was left with the transportation department the day the inspection was done.
The state is limited in doing anything to impose consequences for poor inspection scores.
"The superintendent receives a report, but it's really up to that school system to be in compliance with the law," Graham said. "We don't have any enforcement, other than to say, 'Pull the bus off the road.'
"It's not a real cut-and-dried situation because we don't have an enforcement arm, so we count on the school system to do the right thing. It could be that we'll go back in for a re-inspection. But it's early in the game. It's really up to the school superintendent and the Board of Education."
Transportation Director Raymond Smith maintains that there are several factors contributing to the lower score.
"Through skillful planning and our efforts to reduce costs, we have reduced the number (of buses) to approximately 205," he said. "Our spare bus ratio is 1-to-10, so we have about 25 spares."
Smith explained that when a bus is picked up for service, a spare is immediately put into its place.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of turnover in personnel due to the economy, creating problems with maintenance, he said.
"The thing is, the turnover that we have had here in Wayne County Public Schools transportation department is the issue," he said. "I have lost probably 50 percent of my veteran mechanics to Johnston County. Probably 60 percent of my mechanics that are here have less than one year experience."
The district may have received higher inspection scores in recent years, but that does not mean the buses are unsafe, Smith said, pointing out that the district has not had any "catastrophic accidents" or injuries to students.
"Wayne County has an excellent safety record," he said. "The score that we have is the result of a random bus inspection."
When it comes to buses, everything is a safety issue, Smith said, but the report may not tell the whole story. Citing the reference to "low transmission fluid," for example, the fine print spells out that it simply didn't register on the dipstick, he said.
"We're not necessarily saying that the bus is going to blow up on the kids," he said. "I think of 205 buses, if we had one that was low on transmission fluid. Things happen. We have a very limited staff. We have 10 mechanics to service school buses, plus another 31 activity buses.
"We have limitations. However, while the inspection findings are not as good as we would like, our safety record still remains impeccable. While the score may look bad, Wayne County has an impeccable safety record."
Smith also noted that because inspections are required on each bus every 30 days, maintenance and repairs are done as needed.
That prompted the question, if regular inspections are conducted that frequently, why weren't more of the issues found by the state caught early?
"Problems do occur in-between," Smith said, explaining that some things simply don't show up from one month to the next.
One challenge all school districts deal with, though, is depreciation on the vehicles.
"The state legislature just sent out a proposal where we only replace buses every 250,000 miles," he said. "We have got buses that are over 20 years old. It's very difficult to maintain, very difficult to find parts for them.
"I'm also forced to keep buses longer because of the money we lost (from the state). When you're forced to keep buses for more than 20 years and over 250,00 miles, there's only so many things you can do."
Dr. Steven Taylor, superintendent, said that he had not seen the inspection report, but agreed with Smith.
"Having looked at these in the past, sometimes what they write down appears worse than what it is," Taylor said. "But I know that our safety record has been really good. Obviously we expect our mechanics to catch all of these things. They have never had a perfect report."