Major safety problems revealed with Lawrence Twp. school bus program
A top official at Lawrence Township Schools admits poor maintenance on the district's school buses may have put thousands of students in danger. While the district tries to implement changes, insiders fear student safety may continue to be at risk.
A bus mechanic calls it "deplorable."
Bus drivers use the terms "embarrassing" and "ridiculous."
A state police inspector chooses the word "troubling."
And school officials say it's "totally unacceptable."
They are all referring to a recent inspection of Lawrence Township school buses conducted by Indiana State Police.
The annual inspection, which took place in January and February, resulted in 70 buses being placed "out of service" by ISP. Put another way, 40% of the district's entire bus fleet was pulled off the road due to significant safety and maintenance problems identified by inspectors.
"That should be a concern for the school district, it should be a concern for any parent, it's a concern to us that indicates there needs to be attention to their maintenance plan," said ISP spokesman Dave Bursten. "Any time you have that many buses placed out of service, there's an issue related to the safe transportation of children that needs to be addressed."
Tires, brakes and risk of fire
Lawrence Township's buses were placed out of service at a rate four times higher than the state average, according to state police statewide statistics.
Inspection reports show the problems recently identified by ISP included bad tires; dangerous brakes; broken headlights and tail lights; missing or malfunctioning safety devices; and major fuel leaks, oil leaks and exhaust leaks which could cause a fire.
School officials from Indiana's tenth largest school district admit the inspection was terrible.
"My first reaction was 'Wow. Unacceptable,' said Rodger Smith, Lawrence Township Schools' executive director of operations. As the administrator who oversees the district's program, Smith was asked to explain why the inspection was so bad.
"I think overall, it's our lack of [attention] to the day-to-day [maintenance] as a bus comes in. We should be catching the tires, the exhaust leaks, the tears in seats," he said.
Asked if the lack of attention had put the safety of the district's 15,000 students at risk, he paused and slowly nodded his head up and down.
"Could have," he replied. "That's why we're changing what we're doing."
The admission comes just a few days after a school spokeswoman downplayed bus safety concerns raised by 13 Investigates.
"The state inspection was fine. I don't see the story here," district communications coordinator Mary Louise Bewley told WTHR. "We're talking about buses that had torn seat cushions, and for that you're going to do a story that makes us look bad."
That position seemed to change quickly after the district learned Eyewitness News had talked with several of its current and former bus mechanics and bus drivers who all share serious concerns.
"We all knew it was going to happen"
"They started rejecting buses left and right," a mechanic recalled about the first day of bus inspections in January. "We all knew it was going to happen because we hadn't prepared for it."
"We'd usually get months to get ready for state inspection, but we only got one day this year," said another mechanic. "They said to come in on a Saturday, but how do you get 200 buses ready in one day?"
All of the bus mechanics who talked with WTHR asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the school district. They say state inspectors were furious to see the condition of the buses.
"They could tell there was no work put into it. Brake chambers bad. Tire rods bad. Stuff that shouldn't have been happening," a veteran mechanic said.
Why was there so little preparation for an inspection that had been announced months ahead of time?
"I think it was a money thing," said one of the mechanics. "The idea is ‘save as much money as you possibly can.' I can understand that, but you don't put kids at risk."
Mechanics also told WTHR many parts needed to repair buses are no longer stocked in the Lawrence Township bus garage. To cut costs, the parts are ordered only when needed.
"Part of the problem is a cost issue," agreed Smith, who said property tax caps enacted two years ago have cost the school district almost a million dollars annually from its transportation budget.
But he said the recent state inspection did serve as a wake-up call to implement change.
The biggest change, according to Smith, is a new policy requiring a top-to-bottom inspection of each school bus when it's brought into the district garage for repairs or routine maintenance.
WTHR asked to visit the Lawrence Township bus garage to see the changes first hand. Smith denied the request, explaining he did not want anything to distract mechanics from doing their job.
"We want them to be more attentive," he explained. "I don't want to take away their focus."
Mechanics say the district's new policy to spend more time with each bus may sound like a good idea, but it actually means more buses are now being neglected.
"We just haven't been able to get to do our preventative maintenance because there's not enough people to go around," a mechanic pointed out. "There's just not enough manpower to do it all because we don't have enough mechanics."
Just a few years ago, the Lawrence Township bus garage employed seven mechanics. Because of budget cuts, it now has just four – four mechanics to maintain 199 buses.
By comparison, Center Grove Schools also have 4 mechanics, but that school district has 100 buses – half as many as Lawrence Township.
"We know four is not enough," said Smith, who is trying to hire another mechanic to add to his short-handed staff. "Help is on the way."
In the meantime, Lawrence bus drivers say they often have to wait weeks to get much needed repairs.
13 Investigates talked to seven Lawrence bus drivers, including current drivers and those who have driven for the school district within the past twelve months. Like the mechanics, most asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution or losing their jobs.
"The issues I've seen, that I've reported, are extreme safety problems… [we're] talking braking systems," said a driver who's been with Lawrence Township Schools for nearly 20 years. She said she is now driving a bus with brakes that "lock up" on a regular basis. The problem has been reported twice. Each time, she says it took a week to get her bus into the repair shop and mechanics still haven't solved the problem.
"I'm still experiencing the same issues. I don't feel that it's safe," she said, adding that parents are not aware of the problems.
Asked why she is still driving the bus she believes to be unsafe, the driver responded that she has learned to deal with the braking problems, which "jerk the bus pretty hard."
"I really don't have an option," she said. "If you report it and if they say it's fixed, I mean aside from not showing up to work, you really don't have an option."
Several bus drivers are choosing another option.
They tell Eyewitness News they plan to retire at the end of the school year. Other drivers have already quit.
"The problems started about a year ago when new management was brought in," said former Lawrence bus driver Jackie Young. "After that we couldn't get anything fixed because they weren't ordering parts and fixing stuff. They said it wasn't in the budget."
Young said she reported bald tires, sluggish brakes and other safety concerns on her Lawrence school bus, but had to wait more than six months to get them repaired. "I'd go in time after time and they still wouldn't fix them," she said.
After 27 years of driving school buses for Lawrence Township, Young quit last May after what she describes as a disagreement with her managers.
"The way they are running things now, I'm embarrassed to say I ever drove for Lawrence Township."
The school district says it has completed all repairs ordered this winter by Indiana State Police and all 199 of the buses are now safe – even if it is taking a while to address repairs requested by drivers.
Smith told WTHR tight budgets have forced him to re-evaluate all operations of the school transportation department. He says some of the implemented changes have resulted in disgruntled employees.
"Any time you make changes, you have a group that likes it and a group that won't. We are now holding people accountable and raising expectations, and you have some employees who don't like that. Not everyone likes change," he said.
Some drivers and mechanics believe the change that's coming is the total privatization of the school district's bussing operation, a theory that Smith is not willing to dispel.
"Do we have to look at that as an option? Absolutely," he said. "Will it happen? I can't say one way or another. But can it be done better by an outside company within our budget? It's a conversational item that's taking place right now."
For now, a large banner hangs across a school bus in Lawrence Township.
It's a massive help wanted sign, seeking bus drivers and mechanics for the school district's transportation program. Some of those who currently work inside the program say it needs help – lots of it – in many areas.
"We're still way behind on routine maintenance because we're so short-handed," said a mechanic. "That is a safety issue."
"I think they've lost sight that our job is to transport children safely to and from school on a daily basis," a driver added. "That bus is full of kids. You just hope nothing happens."
STATEMENT FROM MSD OF LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP
The safety of our students is our highest priority in Lawrence Township Schools. We, too, were concerned to see that 40% of our buses failed inspection on first review; however, we took swift action to repair the buses, many of which returned to service on the same day problems were identified. We can assure our families that all buses currently transporting students and bus drivers are safe and road worthy based on inspection by the Indiana State Police.
The district has new processes in place to ensure future inspections meet ISP expectations. Among those changes are bus checks by drivers at the beginning and end of each run, with a check-off sheet to be provided to mechanics when issues are identified; stronger accountability of mechanics' performance; and hiring more mechanics.
The investigation continues Wednesday
Lawrence Township is not the only school district to have school buses fail their annual state inspection. If your child's bus failed its safety check, would you want to know? Wednesday night, 13 Investigates will show you why the state still hasn't delivered important information about your kids' school buses that you were supposed to get years ago. The investigation continues Wednesday at 6pm on Eyewitness News.