With school now in session, parents across west Oakland County are escorting their kids onto big yellow buses and waving goodbye until they fade from view. However, parents need some assurance that their school district is maintaining its bus fleet so their children are conveyed to and from school safely. Michigan prides itself on putting safety first when it comes to school bus transportation and has earned a reputation for its stringent inspection criteria.
State law mandates annual school bus inspections, and again this year the state has begrudgingly foot the bill for the statewide inspection program. However with budget cuts impacting all areas of government, the Michigan State Police (MSP), which performs bus inspections, has needed to curtail the staffing and spending to conduct inspections.
According to Lt. Steven Horwood, state support section commander for the MSP Traffic Safety Division, the MSP was in the process of lobbying for legislation after Gov. Rick Snyder put forth his state budget, seen by many as a bitter pill in these difficult economic and fiscal times.
“If we were only going to get a couple hundred thousand (dollars), we made the recommendation to rewrite the law since we are mandated to conduct an annual inspection on every school bus in accordance with the Pupil Transportation Act of 1990,” he said. “However, no one wanted to touch a proposal at the time.”
“Every agency across the state was told to produce cuts, but Snyder included the bus inspections in his budget to provide safe transportation. It came down to a safety issue,” said Gary Bubar, executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT).
The MSP’s current $900,000 bus inspection budget has been tapered back from the $1.4 million allocated over the last few years. That funding is funneled into the Michigan Department of Education’s budget, which remits it back to the MSP.
There have been futile attempts in the past by legislators to make the school districts responsible for covering bus inspection costs.
“The first thing on the chopping block would be inspections due to the budget crisis in schools,” Horwood said. “The whole purpose of a bus inspection is to make sure school districts maintain some form of maintenance procedures.”
Other attempts to have the MSP inspect buses on a random basis in an effort to save dollars have also failed.
In January 2010, House Bill (HB) 5742 and 5743 were introduced to change the language in the Michigan Vehicle Code and Pupil Transportation Act to remove the mandate for annual bus inspections and instead effectively make the program voluntary. MAPT intervened and was successful in scuttling the legislation.
“That doesn’t mean the MAPT doesn’t want random inspection procedures in some shape or form, but MSP is opposed to that,” Horwood said. “Right now nothing has changed — MSP still has to inspect every school bus.”
The bus fleets of the Huron Valley, Walled Lake, Waterford and West Bloomfield school districts were inspected within the last year, and the relatively few problems that were found were fixed before the start of the new school year. Each district views state-conducted bus inspections as significant to ensuring safe transportation.
Michigan’s school buses are inspected each year beginning Sept. 1 and ending Aug. 31. Michigan school buses undergo a 198-point inspection — far more extensive than any other commercial vehicle in the state.
“One problem school districts run into in an effort to save money is when they try to buy a bus from a seller other than a dealer,” Horwood said. “Michigan has unique guidelines and, once that bus is inspected, it could be red-tagged and then the district could be stuck with a bus it can’t use. If a bus is bought through a dealer though it’s going to be fine.”
The MSP Motor Carrier Division’s Bus Inspection Unit is currently responsible for the state mandated annual inspection of every public, private, denominational, parochial, and charter school vehicle that transports pupils to or from school or a school-related activity.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cites school buses as the safest form of transportation to school for children. Michigan has approximately 17,000 vehicles that transport more than 810,000 students over 10 million miles annually.
The MSP Motor Carrier Division currently employs five permanent bus inspectors and 12 temporary inspectors, two of which cover the Upper Peninsula and the rest of which divvy up duties throughout the balance of the state.
“We had 12 people in the program and in the process of laying off some, some retired,” Horwood said. “It was a very slow process. We didn’t hire additional inspectors, but got officers who were former inspectors that received additional training. Between them and civilian inspectors, we worked very hard to complete the inspections.
“This year we have solid funding and hope to hire additional resources so we don’t have the timing issues we had this year,” he said.
Inspectors are delegated a certain number of vehicles based on a geographic area. Each bus inspection takes about 45 minutes.
Each certified inspector receives updated training and proficiency testing to ensure he or she is current on all equipment changes, legal amendments,and any new policies governing school bus safety.
Vehicles that have been inspected are identified with a sticker placed on either the right front windshield or the window beside the driver. The inspection sticker displays the MSP Motor Carrier Division “shield” and the date of the last inspection.
During the inspection process, vehicles are tagged to denote that they either need immediate attention or minor repairs, or the vehicles pass, meaning they meet all inspection criteria and are approved for use on the road.
Vehicles rejected by the inspectors receive a red tag. These vehicles were found to have at least one item that had either the potential to cause a breakdown or posed a passenger safety hazard. Michigan law requires the repair of all red tag items prior to the transportation of any passenger.
Vehicles indicated with a yellow tag are not in a completely satisfactory condition but are safe for operation. By law, these vehicles must be repaired within 60 days.
Raw data available underscores the number of red tags, yellow tags and the total number of passes and fails, but is not indicative of the whole picture.
“A red tag could be as critical as a serious defect or something less severe, but still, by our procedures, would mean (the bus) couldn’t transport (pupils) until it’s repaired,” Horwood said.
In the lakes area school districts, the latest bus inspection results indicate that area schools are providing safe transportation for students throughout west Oakland County. Below is a breakdown on how local public school districts fared during the latest round of bus inspections.
17 buses fail inspection
in Huron Valley Schools
According to numbers from the MSP for the Huron Valley School District, 89 buses were inspected in the last year. Of those 72 passed, and 17 were red-tagged.
“We pulled four out of service as we’re replacing a total of seven buses in September,” said Huron Valley Director of Community Relations and Fund Development Janet Roberts.
Currently the district has a fleet of 92 buses.
“Although 89 were inspected, three were being replaced in September, so they need to be inspected,” Roberts said.
Loose bolts, a rattle in a valve system and rust were the reasons for buses being red-tagged.
“Of those tagged, there was no risk to children or drivers — nothing serious or a danger,” Roberts said.
The fleet has been on an average 13-year replacement cycle, but with the passage of a bond issue in 2009, the district expects to retain or lower that average.
“The bond proposal was to purchase seven new buses for each of the nine years of the bond,” Roberts said. “The size and type of bus would depend on the replacement schedule so they would not all be 77-passenger buses.”
The average cost was estimated at $80,000 for general education buses and $90,000 for buses serving special needs students, with a 2.5 percent increase each year for manufacturing cost increases.
The fleet is comprised of 62 general education buses and 30 special needs buses that range from 1-year-old to 14-years-old; one is 16-years-old. Eight of the older buses are used as spares.
In June 2011, the district authorized the purchase of seven buses that are being delivered this month.
The general education buses just purchased in June cost $80,734 each, whereas the two types of special needs buses cost $76,400 and $93,961 each.
In the past, the district has sold buses outright, scrapped the buses for salvage or auctioned them off to the highest bidder.
Handful of buses in WLCS
fleet were red-tagged
Of the Walled Lake Consolidated School District’s 116-bus fleet, 113 passed initial inspection in the last year while three were red-tagged, unlike the last two years when the district received perfect inspection records.
“We were short on mechanics and have an aging fleet, so to get three red tags is pretty good, actually,” said Transportation Supervisor Jill Segal.
One red tag was given to a special education bus. One of the bolts on a seat was unattached.
“The bus is a little older — the bolts are smaller and one didn’t hold,” Segal said. “Actually the mechanic was glad because he didn’t know about this, so now he’s changing every one to hold to the floor better.”
Another bus failed due to a flat tire, while the third violation was due to a window buzzer that didn’t work.
“On the C-2 Thomas 77-passenger buses, they are notorious for electric problems,” Segal said. “Sure enough, when there’s a big rain storm we have buzzer problems.”
Each of the district’s red-tagged buses was fixed immediately.
The district also maintains seven Novi-Detroit Catholic Central High School buses, and each passed inspection.
The district’s average bus is 5-years-old, though there are still a few buses from 1999 and 2000. The last time the district purchased buses was in 2009, when five were bought. Most of the buses are 77-passenger vehicles, but there are nine 65-passenger and eight 78-passenger buses in the district’s fleet, along with special education buses.
The district purchases its buses outright rather than leasing them, by going through the Michigan School Bus Officials consortium to get the best prices possible.
Typically, the transportation department holds an auction on site to sell off used buses ready to be retired. Proceeds are funneled back into the district’s general fund.
Waterford fleet had trio
of buses fall short
Last year, Waterford Schools earned a perfect inspection report on its bus fleet. Again this year the district fared well in the inspection of its fleet of 78 buses, with 75 passing and three red-tagged.
“We had no violations last year and we prefer it that way, but sometimes we come across things,” said Service Mechanical Coordinator/Manager Mike Sauk. “We were right in the middle of field trip season when they had us pull off the road and be inspected.”
Of the trio of buses red-tagged, one was removed from service permanently.
“We had taken it out of service and didn’t present it for inspections, but if it’s still on the property it must be red-tagged,” Sauk said.
The remaining two red-tagged buses had mechanical problems — one due to a parking brake failure, and the second due to an inversion valve.
“Those red-tagged were repaired immediately,” Sauk said.
The fleet model years are from between 1995 and 2007. The district recently renewed its lease on 10 2009-2010 buses for another 36 months. The rest of the fleet is comprised of five 2004 models, 10 from 2005 and the rest from 1995-2000.
“The fleet is getting older every year,” Sauk said. “We were up to 15 being leased and now we’re down to 10 since we just turned in five that aren’t being replaced due to state cutbacks.”
Sauk said even though some of the buses are older — having been in operations since 1995 — they are well-maintained.
“We’ve taken care of them all along and are doing the best we can with what we have,” Sauk said.
Leasing the vehicles has helped to curtail costs and allows the district to take receipt of newer buses.
Typically the district spends roughly $9,000 annually on average per lease for a 65-passenger vehicle, depending on the specifications. Buses for special needs students hover around $10,000 per year.
To maintain buses, the department keeps a limited on-hand inventory of parts for emergencies. To offset the costs, the district utilizes the Oakland County parts bidding process, which is a collaborative effort with a coalition of Oakland County schools.
When a vehicle is retired, the district generally takes it to auction with other buses. Proceeds are deposited into the district’s general fund.
W. Bloomfield notches
West Bloomfield Schools Transportation Supervisor Lynne Robertson is beaming with pride since her district is the only one in the lakes area to have each of her 62 buses pass inspection this year.
“This hasn’t happened in the last decade, so we’re very excited,” she said. “Our drivers do pre-trip inspections and are very diligent about writing up what they find. Our mechanics have worked extremely hard in maintaining our buses, especially since the fleet is aging.”
The district’s bus fleet is generally comprised of models from between 1999 and 2006.
“We know we have to keep buses running and in good shape,” Robertson said.
The last bus purchase was in 2006 when 20 were delivered. Robertson said she plans on ordering between eight and 10 buses this fall, including 65-passenger conventional buses and special needs buses, some with wheelchair lifts, integrated car seats, and air conditioning.
Robertson said special needs buses with customized equipment can reach costs of $90,000 each. Most likely, the district will purchase three of this variety. The 65-passenger buses typically cost about $80,000.
The buses will be purchased with bond money.
Once the buses are retired, the district sells the vehicles outright. All sale proceeds are channeled into its general fund.
Ten buses are scheduled to sold this fall. Each could fetch between $2,500 and $5,000.
Robertson added she is relieved the MSP is continuing the annual bus inspection process.
“I was very concerned about the district eating the cost and the MSP discontinuing the practice — it’s important for safety while transporting our kids,” she said.