Gaining access to Indiana school bus records a "monumental task"

State Police inspect all Indiana school buses - more than 16,000 of them - at least once annually.
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13 Investigates learned 70 school buses in Lawrence Township failed their recent safety inspections.

But Lawrence Township parents – and other parents around the state – rarely see the inspection reports for their children's buses. Those reports give important clues about the safety of individual buses – and how well a school district maintains its entire fleet.

"The inspection reports give an important snap shot of their maintenance program," said Indiana State Police Capt. Dave Bursten. "If you have a lot of buses placed out of service, that's a concern and it suggests there needs to be more attention to their maintenance plan."

State Police inspect all Indiana school buses - more than 16,000 of them - at least once annually. 

Each inspection results in a formal report, and those reports are a matter of public record.

For decades, ISP inspectors maintained those documents on paper, storing tens of thousands of pages in file cabinets and, at times, in the trunks of state patrol cars. 

Getting a single inspection record for a single bus took days or even weeks.

Now state police are recording bus inspections electronically.

They have Blackberry enabled tablets to record every safety problem found on every bus.

It's a big improvement for the state -- but not for parents.

"It takes time"

Accessing bus inspection data is still tedious. Bursten told WTHR is was a "monumental task" to get 13 Investigates inspection data for Lawrence Township buses – a project that took ISP nine days.

"Our inspectors have other things to do, and I'm told it's a very involved process to download all that information to get it to you," he said.

It's not supposed to be that way.

Seven years ago, the Indiana Department of Education started a project with state police to put bus inspection information online. The intent was to give parents easy access to inspection reports so they could check the safety history of their children's buses any time they wanted.

"Our goal is to provide State Police a better system than what we've got now, and to give the public something it can use to see the inspections a lot easier," said IDOE's transportation director in 2008.

Seven years later, the department of education has dropped out of the program's development, and ISP says it's still a "work in progress."

"That's a significant programming issue and it takes time to put together," Bursten told WTHR.

Why is the process taking so long?

Bursten said ISP has no mandate to develop the program and no funding for the project. He said the technology to develop an online bus inspection portal is also very complicated.

"We've encountered some problems with it. I don't have specifics about what it is. I know they are trying to work through that."

Should the entire process take more than seven years?

By comparison, the Marion County Health Department implemented an online system for its restaurant inspections that now provides instant public access to tens of thousands of inspection records. That in-house project took the health department 18 months from start to finish.

Seven years into their project, ISP is partnering with a private firm and isn't sure when bus inspection records will be online.

Still years away?

Indiana Interactive is a software company that specializes in government projects. It has been working on the bus inspection project with ISP for the past two years.

"We are working through a series of reports the state feels would be most beneficial," said Indiana Interactive general manager Sloane Wright. "We think it's very exciting and, as far as I know, Indiana is the only state taking things to this level."

Sloane says his company is developing the Indiana school bus portal for free, and that the project is not costing a dime for Hoosiers. He hopes to later sell data from the project and to replicate it in other states to make a profit for his company.

Both Sloane and Bursten say the focus of the project is providing information to Indiana State Police – not to provide an online portal to help Indiana parents better track the safety history of their children's school buses.

"The order of business is to make sure we do effective inspections and then create a mobile application for parents. While that [online portal] is an end goal, the legislature has not mandated it," Bursten said.

Wright believes it could take another 12 to 24 months to complete the online public portal.

Rick Pederson, transportation director for Center Grove Schools, says such a project is worthwhile, and he hopes the system is in place as soon as possible.

Parents have a right to know what their child is being transported on and what the safety of that vehicle is," Pederson said.  "If it was my child, I'd want to be certain that bus was safe before I put my child on that bus, so a program like that is a great idea."