After a city investigation revealed serious safety concerns about school buses last year, the New Orleans City Council decided to start inspecting them. But more than a month into the school year, more than 80 percent of the city’s school buses have yet to pass inspection.
Nearly all of the 650 school buses in the city are run by private companies that have contracts with charter schools. They were supposed to pass inspection before September 1. Wesley Pfeiffer, who oversees school bus inspections for the city, said the city has inspected 200 buses so far, and around 80 of them failed. The most common failures were seat rips, problems with emergency alarms, missing strobe lights, inoperable stop arms and tire damage.
Pfeiffer said more than 400 school buses haven’t been inspected at all, because the bus companies waited until the last minute.
"I can definitively say the hold-up isn’t on our end," Pfeiffer said. "Many operators waited until July and even into August to come in and apply."
In addition, Pfeiffer said many companies simply didn't show up for their inspection appointments.
The city hasn’t decided whether to give bus operators another extension, or to start handing out citations, which Pfeiffer said run between $100 and $500.
The city started inspecting school buses after investigations last year by the city itself and WWL-TV revealed some buses weren’t insured or even registered. Some had emergency exits padlocked shut, shoddy body work and even holes in the floor of the bus.
In other parts of the state, local school districts are in charge of inspecting buses for safety, and in most cases they also own they own and operate them. But New Orleans' unique system of charter schools doesn't have centralized busing. Each charter school is in charge of finding its own bus transportation, and most contract out to private companies.
Pfeiffer said buses that have passed inspection will have a sticker in the lower passenger side of the windshield.
After failing inspection, one bus company leaves schools in a lurch
Since the city started inspecting buses, one company, Kids First Transportation, failed to produce proper insurance documentation and then abruptly canceled its contract with four New Orleans charter schools, according to city and school officials. The sudden cancellation weeks into the school year left the four schools in a lurch. A parent at one impacted school, Mary McLeod Bethune Charter School, said the last several weeks have been chaotic as a new contractor, BCH Services, has scrambled to meet the school's needs.
The parent, who asked not to be identified by name to protect her daughters' privacy, said parents at Bethune had been asked to find their own transportation for several days in September. She said since bus service restarted, her daughters have been late to school, and that afternoon rides are unpredictable and can take as long as two hours.
"After an hour out of school and you hear nothing, you start to panic," she said. "You can’t be calm when you don’t know where your child is."
She started packing her daughters frozen water bottles to help keep cool during the long, hot ride home. She's frustrated that bus companies have waited so long to undergo inspection.
"Everything should be on-point," she said. "You are in charge of hundreds of children every day. Like, there’s no reason that this should happen."
A spokeswoman for Bethune, Cheron Brylski, said the school is working out the issues with BCH Services.
"At this point we have to train the new provider and stick with them because there isn’t anyone else," she said.
Richard Williams, a spokesman for BCH, said they got off to a "rocky start," with Bethune but he expects the issues to be resolved this week.
Tania Dall, a spokeswoman for NOLA Public Schools, sent an emailed statement saying the district is working with the city and schools to find new transportation providers for schools that had been using Kids First Transportation.
Kids First Transportation did not respond to request for comment.