The school bus fleet at Traverse City Area Public Schools is in top shape. It has passed Michigan’s state inspections at 100 percent for the past four years in a row.
Phillip Haldaman, the district’s director of transportation, appreciates getting high marks, but mainly he appreciates the opportunity to have his 130 buses scrutinized by an unbiased third party.
That unbiased third party would be the bus inspection unit of the Michigan State Police. The state pays for the unit to annually inspect each school bus in operation. But that may change.
As of this writing, Michigan legislators were working to eliminate the approximately $1.4 million annual budget for the state inspections. The result would be school bus operations having to pay for the inspections themselves.
“It sounds like it’s being turned into an unfunded mandate,” Haldaman told us. He said he’s not sure exactly how much the inspections would cost his district each year, but he estimated that it would be “in the thousands.”
In our latest state-by-state pupil transportation survey, we found that there were 17,282 school buses in Michigan. Just to get an idea, let’s divide the 2008-09 state inspection budget, $1,403,500, by that total number of buses. It comes out to $81 per bus.
That may not seem like a lot at first glance, but for a fleet of 130 buses, like Traverse City Area Public Schools’, it would add up to more than $10,500 per year. (Again, this is just a rough estimate.)
Times are tough, and state budgets — all budgets, for that matter — are subject to intense scrutiny. Cutting costs is on everyone’s to-do list. But funding for safety programs like state school bus inspections should be among the last to go.
“This is something that should not happen,” Susan Jenkins, transportation director at Gaylord Community Schools, told us. Like Haldaman, she emphasizes the importance of having an agency watching over the condition of the state’s school buses.
Gaylord Community Schools was one of our Top Shops for 2009 (see the March issue). Since 1990, the district’s 33-vehicle fleet has consistently scored 100 percent on state inspections.
This issue is not confined to Michigan. We’ve learned that Arizona is considering a similar measure. Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would remove the requirement for the Department of Public Safety to annually inspect the state’s school buses.
It wasn’t clear as of this writing whether school bus operations would have to pay to have the inspections conducted, but Ronald Scarborough, transportation director at Yuma Educational Technology Consortium, said that his operation would request inspections if they’re eliminated.
“We feel that it’s a good safety check for us to ensure that we’re meeting our responsibilities and living up to our end of what we need to do to keep the buses safe for the students,” Scarborough said.
The pupil transportation communities in Arizona and Michigan have been working to thwart these unfortunate legislative efforts.
If there’s talk of cutting funding for school bus inspections in your state, be sure to let your legislators know why that’s a bad idea.
We’ll continue to keep you posted on developments like this across the nation.