In pupil transportation we often take for granted the excellent work done by the vast majority of maintenance staffs. Mechanics can never get enough credit for their work behind the scenes. They are the backbone of the industry. Not surprisingly, it’s very rare when a bus crash is blamed on faulty maintenance or equipment failure.
But the need for vigilance is greater than ever. School boards are taking red pens to the budget, often targeting the transportation program for spending cuts. School bus managers need to fight for every dollar that can be preserved in the operational budget as well as for capital expenditures. New buses do more than reduce the average age of the fleet; they also provide the greatest cushion of safety for drivers and passengers alike.
An extreme example
An ongoing case in California illustrates my point.
The headline says it all: “School Buses Curbed as Fleet Flunks Safety Test.” The article, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 16, documented the failure of Amador County School District in Jackson, Calif., to properly maintain its fleet of 30 buses. (Our coverage of this story appears on pg. 19.)
More than just ‘poor maintenance” was afoot at this district, however. At press time, the local district attorney was considering criminal charges against those responsible for maintaining the fleet.
A school district charged for criminal neglect of school buses? That would apparently set a precedent in California, possibly in the U.S. Even though the state has the highest percentage of pre-1977 buses in the nation, its school bus fleets generally perform well during annual California Highway Patrol (CHP) inspections.
So how did Amador’s fleet get to the point where the local authorities would even consider criminal charges? School officials blame an aged fleet, a lack of funding and poor supervision of the shop program. Whatever the reason, the program was in sorry shape.
In March 2002, CHP inspectors failed 29 of 30 Amador buses, tallying 265 violations. Over the past four years, district buses have been cited for 822 violations.
District officials have been warned repeatedly to repair the maintenance program. In early January, the school board was warned that heavy fines would be levied if the situation was not handled.
It wasn’t. A few weeks later, another inspection found more safety violations, including bad tires, faulty suspensions and poor record keeping. School board members decided to remove all 30 buses from the road.
This is an unaccountably sad — and scary — story. Bus breakdowns were so common that a local radio station reported updates during reports on the weather and ski conditions. One mother called the CHP after her son reported that his bus’ axle fell off while in transit.
Funding problems partly to blame
Without knowing all the facts, it’s hard to pass judgment on this fleet. There may be extenuating circumstances. For example, a lack of funding certainly could create challenges for the maintenance staff. But when safety of the passengers is jeopardized, the transportation department needs to demand more resources, whether that’s more money, better supervision or more mechanics.
On a positive note, the school district reported that it has purchased eight new buses and brought in inspectors last summer to suggest ways to improve the maintenance program. The new buses will make a huge difference, especially in freeing up the garage staff to tend to the needs of the older vehicles in the fleet.