Here’s a first for me in the new intersection of social media, journalism and public education: A mother who quizzed the superintendent on Facebook Live this week got better answers about bus safety than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools provided to a WBTV investigative reporter last month.
Before I lay out that story, let’s cut to the punch line: CMS has been unable to hire enough bus mechanics and drivers to meet this year’s need. As of Wednesday, eight of 50 mechanic jobs were unfilled, and the district had 72 driver vacancies in a force of more than 1,000.
The district’s proposal to increase magnet seats and other school options next year is bound to increase the need for both. And yes, that’s going to be a challenge, said CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper.
But Stamper, who headed the transportation department for years, says the buses are “absolutely” safe, even with mechanics working extra hours to fill the gaps.
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“Knowing the staff and knowing the dedication, I would put my child on a CMS bus,” Stamper said Wednesday. “They are safer on a bus going to and from school than in a car.”
The bus safety question came up Monday, when Superintendent Ann Clark joined me for a Facebook Live session to answer questions about the upcoming changes to the magnet plan. Wendy Rogers, a CMS parent, posted a question asking how CMS planned to deal with “the dangerous conditions found on CMS buses last spring” as it rolls out a plan that could put kids on longer rides next year.
Clark initially responded by taking issue with rumors that CMS would be forcing students onto longer bus rides. Applying for magnets, which often does require a longer ride than going to the assigned neighborhood schools, is voluntary.
I knew she wasn’t addressing the safety issue raised, but honestly, I was drawing a blank on the reference to conditions found last spring. When Rogers sent a follow-up message on Facebook, asking if Clark was going to discuss dangerous conditions found by state inspectors, videographer Justine Miller explained that Rogers had included a link to a WBTV story. Clark couldn’t read the article during the live stream and suggested that Rogers follow up with the communications office.
After we finished I checked the link. The story by Nick Ochsner, posted on Sept. 20, was based on a tip from a former CMS bus mechanic, who said that “the growing bus-to-mechanic ratio poses a safety risk to students.” Ochsner backed that up by looking at a state safety audit done in April and May. Inspectors examined 96 buses, or about one-tenth of the fleet, and found 24 with defects serious enough to be taken out of service. The district’s safety rating was worse than the previous year’s and worse than the regional average.
“More than half of the school buses pulled off the road had problems with brakes, tires or the suspension. Several buses had a cracked frame or loose bolts,” Ochsner reported.
CMS provided Ochsner with a statement about the district’s commitment to safety and pride in its preventive maintenance, without addressing the specifics raised. “A school spokeswoman refused to provide additional details, when requested by On Your Side Investigates, about what is being done to address the shortage of bus mechanics,” Ochsner reported.
I sent that link to Clark and the communications office, saying I’d also like to know what the situation is with mechanic vacancies and bus safety.
Hard to compete
Stamper called Wednesday evening to follow up. She said she didn’t have a tally of vacancies when last year’s audit took place, but it was higher than the current eight. Empty spots do make it harder to keep up with maintenance, she said, though she took issue with calling the defects found during the audit dangerous.
Stamper said CMS does inspections every 30 days, as required by the state, and said each bus gets preventive maintenance on a schedule. Currently, she said, the district is “in full compliance” with those schedules. But she said new issues can emerge at any time, and the state caught some of those last spring.
“It is a very, very serious audit, and we take it that way,” she said, but “just because we have vacancies doesn’t equal unsafe buses.”
Stamper said CMS pay isn’t competitive with other mechanic jobs. The same is true for bus drivers, who make lower hourly wages and have less steady working hours than people who drive city buses. When school opened in August, CMS had 90 driver vacancies, leading to some very late buses.
That’s related to student assignment because the state provides a lump sum to CMS for transportation. A plan that emphasizes choice, as CMS does, tends to require more buses, drivers and support staff. The demand rose this year because the district expanded options for magnet transportation. The revised plan that will be voted on Nov. 9 calls for adding thousands of magnet seats each year for the foreseeable future.
If CMS has to spread its state money too thin to cover the needed staff, it turns to county money to help pay for transportation. That happened this year, and Clark has said she plans to ask the county for an unspecified increase for transportation again in 2017. That will be in addition to costs for adding and expanding magnet programs, which Clark plans to release next week. Any increases in county money will require winning support from county commissioners who have so far been skeptical of the school board’s plan to create a revised student assignment plan driven by diversity and choice.