More Michigan school buses flunk safety inspections

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
  • Small%2C rural school districts were experiencing the most problems with their buses in 2013-14.
  • Inspection failure rate climbs from 7.6 percent in 2011-12 to 10.2 percent in 2013-14.
  • State Police official says failure rate rises and falls as school districts replenish their fleets.

Scottville — If Mason County Central Schools had its way, it would replace a few of its aging buses every year.

But because the district doesn't have enough money, it went a decade without replacing a single one.

As a result, the rust on some buses is so bad that holes have formed on side panels, exposing the insulation beneath. Some of the district's 18 vehicles have logged 300,000 miles since 1995.

The western Michigan district is far from alone.

The latest yearly inspections by the Michigan State Police found small, rural school districts were experiencing the most problems with their buses during the 2013-14 school year.

In Mason County Central, 13 of 18 buses failed inspection. In Ubly Community Schools in the Michigan Thumb, nine of 12 failed. In Vestaburg Community Schools in central Michigan, all nine buses failed.

By contrast, the statewide failure rate was just over 10 percent, though the rate rose for the second straight year.

The districts blamed their high failure rates on aging fleets and the lack of money to replace them.

"Our fleet is really old," said Jim Stapleton, garage supervisor for Mason County Central. "The (MSP) inspectors don't lighten up on you just because you're rural."

After an inspection, buses are placed in one of three categories: pass, yellow or red.

Yellow means the vehicle is safe to operate but its problems need to be fixed within 60 days. An example of such a problem is a broken hood latch.

Red means the problem is so severe the bus must be taken off the road immediately and cannot return until it is corrected. Examples range from missing fire extinguishers to weak brakes.

In Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools in western Michigan, three of 20 buses failed inspection because of suspension trouble and leaks from exhaust and air brake systems.

Parent Ken Cote, whose two children attend Galesburg schools, said he was glad the reasons weren't more severe than that.

"If it was something serious, I'd be the first one to say something," he said. "But we don't live in a gumballs and jellybeans perfect world."

As for the state as a whole, the number of buses that failed inspection jumped from 7.6 percent in 2011-12 to 9.5 percent in 2012-13 and 10.2 percent in 2013-14, according to state police figures.

An MSP official discounted the recent increase, saying the failure rate rises and falls indiscriminately as school districts replenish their fleets.

"The trend is cyclic," said inspector Randy Coplin, assistant commander of the MSP commercial vehicle enforcement division.

Harder to dismiss is the disparity between rural and urban districts.

In Detroit Public Schools, only 14 of the 419 buses failed inspection, according to the state police report.

Possible reasons for the difference between urban and rural districts, besides the age of buses, could be a system's budget, quality of roads, and experience and number of mechanics, Coplin said.

But not all urban districts had good results.

In the Lansing Public School District, more than half the buses failed inspection in 2013-14, according to the MSP. The problems included brakes, steering and exhaust systems.

Lansing school spokesman Bob Kolt said he was at a loss to explain why the state reported 72 of 133 buses failed. The district has only 63 buses, he said.

Coplin explained that Lansing had outsourced its busing earlier this year and so troopers had to inspect the vehicles a second time after the sale. The prior year, only three buses failed inspection, said Kolt.

Still, he conceded the district's fleet had been getting old before the sale.

"Everyone would like brand-new buses running around with low mileage," said Kolt. "It's just not always possible."

As for Metro Detroit, one of the local districts that struggled the most with the inspections was Romeo Community Schools.

More than a third of the buses, 15 of 44, failed inspection in 2013-14, according to the state police. The woes included brakes, tires and lights.

A Romeo school official said the vehicles had grown old, with some dating to the late 1990s. Also, they had transported students across a wide area, 88 square miles.

But most of the problems were fixed quickly, said Frank Rydquist, director of transportation services for Romeo schools. "They were back on the road the same day," he said.

The district also passed a bond issue last year that allowed officials to buy 22 buses and could lead to the purchase of 10 more. The new vehicles have allowed the district to get rid of 17 old ones and reduce the use of other old buses, said Rydquist.

In the Vestaburg schools, the reasons all nine vehicles failed inspection included problems with a parking brake, steering and exhaust systems, according to state police. A school official said one of the buses was 23 years old and that dirt roads and Michigan winters had worn down the vehicles.

Earlier this year, the Vestaburg district bought two 2004 buses, allowing them to mothball the 1991 vehicle and one from 1995.

Parent Kristin Powers, whose daughter takes the bus to Vestaburg Elementary School, said she was glad to see the district update part of its fleet.

"You can't put dollars and cents on a child's safety," she said.

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