A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus wrecked Tuesday morning when a wheel fell off as it was taking Garinger High students to their second day of school.
The unusual breakdown, which damaged a car and left the bus sitting askew on busy Eastway Drive, comes as CMS struggles to find enough mechanics to maintain its growing fleet – and as the last state review of the fleet brought below-average safety ratings. One student was taken to the hospital as a precaution, CMS said, but no one was seriously injured.
Bus maintenance and safety is important for 126,000 students assigned to CMS buses this year, as well as drivers who encounter the 1,078 yellow vehicles that criss-cross the county from before 5 a.m. to after 6 p.m.
On Aug. 16, CMS Transportation Director Janet Thomas said 14 of the district’s 99 positions for bus maintenance and repair remained vacant. She said it’s hard to compete with trucking companies, which pay mechanics more.
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Neither Thomas nor Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper responded to the Observer’s calls Tuesday seeking details on the problems with Bus 1553 and an update on maintenance staffing. The public information office said the district “is investigating the incident as well as the maintenance record for the bus.”
CMS provided a copy of a one-page inspection report showing that the bus, a 2011 model with about 120,000 miles on it, received a 30-day safety inspection on Aug. 17. Handwritten notes indicate the brakes and a broken “battery door” were repaired.
Once a year, the state inspects 10 percent of each district’s fleet. For 2016-17, a new state inspector logged significantly more defects than the prior year, and CMS’ safety score was below the state average. Defects found included an unsecured battery, broken locks, lights out and a failed braking system test. Out of the 104 buses inspected, 49 were taken out of service until repaired.
The need for CMS bus drivers and mechanics has outstripped the ability to fill those jobs in recent years. That’s partly because it’s a large and growing district that covers 546 square miles (only Wake County is larger), and partly because CMS has expanded busing to get students to magnet programs. Providing transportation for magnets and other opt-in schools means buses travel longer distances to pick up smaller groups of students.
CMS leaders have described academic options with full transportation as a key to ensuring that all students have strong academic opportunities. Students whose families aren’t satisfied with their neighborhood schools can ride the bus to other schools with specialized programs, ranging from math and science to foreign languages and the arts.