CMS looks to make improvements after below average bus safety inspection

A school bus heads for school after its last stop on the way to South Mecklenburg High School on the first day of school, Monday, August 29, 2016.
A school bus heads for school after its last stop on the way to South Mecklenburg High School on the first day of school, Monday, August 29, 2016.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school buses got a worse grade in an annual inspection report, but officials say a new inspector could be the reason behind the score.

Danny Reed is the new inspector for school bus fleets in North Carolina’s western region and each fleet he inspected received a worse score than the previous year.

Still, CMS’ score was worse than the average district that Reed inspected.

The 2016-17 report showed CMS’ score increased from 38.91 to 77.73. A higher score indicates more defects were found during the inspection. Defects found included an unsecured battery, broken locks, lights out and a failed braking system test. Out of the 104 buses inspected – about 10 percent of the fleet – 49 were taken out of service until repaired.

“Some of those things can be resolved in a matter of seconds,” said Kevin Harrison, section chief of the department of public instruction transportation services. Items that can receive points are an unsecured broom or an aerosol can on the bus.

Each school system in the western region had the same percentage of buses inspected. Caldwell County only had 12 inspected, but the score increased just as much. Four buses were inspected in Yancey County and the county’s score increased from 18.75 to 74.

The average score for buses in the western region inspected by Reed was 48.18. The central and eastern regions had lower average scores and had a consistent inspector, Harrison said. Harrison said Reed is highly ranked in the state as a school bus inspector.

Inspection reports help mechanics re-prioritize their maintenance and teaches them what to look for, said Janet Thomas, the executive director of transportation for CMS. She said this year’s increased score was a big surprise to them after years of consistent scores.

“When you have that kind of point increase, the first thing you ask is why,” Thomas said.

Thomas said a new inspector brought fresh eyes and a different perspective to their bus fleet, which highlighted problems within CMS school buses. For example, this year’s report showed that on each bus inspected, the fire extinguisher inspection date had expired. Thomas said the manual doesn’t specify who has to inspect the fire extinguisher and CMS had a school bus inspector do it. But when each bus received points for the extinguisher, Thomas learned they needed to be inspected by a fire extinguisher inspector.

Thomas said none of the defects found would keep buses from operating, but were identified by the inspector because of mechanical or safety issues. Torn seat foam doesn’t impact the bus engine, but it could affect student safety if the bus stopped suddenly, she said.

Thomas said she is glad these issues were pointed out to the transportation department, no matter how small, because they needed to be corrected.

“We are definitely going to correct all of it before the first day of school,” she said.

CMS has also struggled to find qualified diesel mechanics – a problem faced among other school systems – as well as enough drivers, Thomas said. The demand is expected to grow when schools open in August, because the district expanded magnet programs that generally require longer bus rides.

“It makes it more of a challenge to get it all done,” she said.

After getting the report, Thomas said the staff sits down to debrief and look for patterns of problems. They use the report to make staffing decisions and design timelines for getting each defect corrected.

“It is absolutely the framework for student safety,” Thomas said.

Jamie Gwaltney: 704-358-5612, @jamielgwaltney