When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools transportation chief saw the report on a Tuesday bus wreck, she thought it was a bad joke.
It said two rear wheels had detached from the driver’s side of Bus 1553 on the way to Garinger High. That meant 10 lug nuts, improperly tightened after brake work 12 days earlier, had worked loose, sending the huge wheels rolling into traffic on Eastway Drive.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Transportation Director Janet Thomas said Thursday. “That just doesn’t happen.”
Last year CMS had tested a product used in the trucking industry to avoid just such incidents, by using patterns on the lug nuts that help drivers spot any that are slipping. The district tried the devices on the front wheels of some buses. There was no obvious benefit; under normal circumstances the lug nuts don’t work loose, Thomas said.
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But after Tuesday’s episode, which officials say happened when a technician failed to use a torque wrench to do the final tightening, Thomas said she’s considering adding that kind of visual cue to all bus wheels. Drivers are required to inspect the wheels before and after each run, but Thomas said it wouldn’t have been obvious that the nuts were getting loose.
“This is just so out of the ordinary. I’ve had people call and ask, ‘How does this happen?’ I don’t know. I absolutely don’t know,” Thomas said.
While the wreck on the second day of school didn’t cause major injuries, a loose wheel hit a car and things could have been much worse. “It was a terrible event that marred a good start,” Thomas said.
The technician who failed to torque the lug nuts has apparently been suspended without pay. CMS initially declined to answer questions about disciplinary measures, citing personnel privacy. But the Observer requested the status of the employee whose name is on the Aug. 17 inspection report for the bus that lost its wheels. That employee, who has worked for CMS since 2011, was suspended on Thursday.
1,078 CMS buses on the road
50 jobs funded for skilled bus mechanics
9 remain vacant
The freak event highlights a broader challenge: As CMS keeps putting more buses on the road, it can’t find enough mechanics to service them.
The employee who made the mistake is supposed to be one of 50 with the skills to do the required 30-day bus inspections and maintenance for a fleet of 1,078 buses. Nine of those jobs remain vacant, Thomas said.
Thomas said filling those jobs has been a longstanding challenge. CMS pays $17.11 an hour, while trucking companies pay about $20 an hour for similar jobs, Thomas said.
CMS has increased the need for bus maintenance by relying on a network of magnets to remain competitive with charter and private schools and provide alternatives for students in low-performing schools. Offering those options requires more buses and longer rides than simply taking students to their neighborhood school.
Wake County, for instance, has more students in a bigger geographic area. But CMS had more buses and more riders, covering about 2 million more miles per year than Wake in 2015-16, the most recent year that the state lists transportation data.
Since then CMS has eliminated recession-driven restrictions on magnet busing and added options, with recently approved student assignment changes calling for a continuing increase in magnets. Since 2015-16, CMS has added 73 buses and increased its transportation budget by $8.5 million, to $68.5 million for the current school year. Most of that money comes from the state.
While full current bus data for Wake wasn’t available Friday, the busing gap appears to have widened. The Wake district reports having 737 buses with about 75,000 riders this year. CMS has 1,078 buses, with 126,000 assigned to ride (numbers generally dwindle during the first two weeks).
Yet Wake is also short eight mechanics as the first week of school draws to a close.
While the link to mechanic vacancies isn’t clear, CMS has seen bus safety violations rise. When a state inspector did an annual check of a sampling of the CMS fleet last school year, CMS’ violation tally increased from 38.91 the year before to 77.73. A higher score indicates more defects were found.
That may have been partly due to the arrival of a new inspector, who found more defects in every fleet he checked. But the CMS rating was significantly worse than 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 – about 10 percent of the fleet – 49 were taken out of service until repaired.
When bus mechanic jobs remain vacant there’s little room to reduce the work load, Thomas said. The state requires that each bus get a safety inspection every 30 days, with a 44-item mandatory checklist.
“When you have vacancies the others do more,” she said. “We just stay until we get it done.”
State and federal transportation officials agree with Thomas that it’s rare – but potentially deadly – for wheels to detach from school buses. A state official said nothing in the CMS inspection reports indicates a chronic problem with lug nuts.
And Thomas said the district has rechecked buses serviced by the technician who made the error and others. No other loose lug nuts were found, she said.
“People want to know that our buses are safe,” she said. “It has been a terrible event that we take so seriously. We want to make sure it never happens again.”