One Inspector Responsible For All School Bus Checks

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Verlan Vos, flashlight and laptop in hand, climbs onto West Monona Community School District bus No. 16 and begins ticking off items.

Crossing arm extends? Check.

Blinking red lights work? Check.

Emergency door unlocks? Check.

Three checks. Sixty-five more to go before Vos can move on to some of the other nearly 7,500 Iowa school buses that need scrutinizing this year.

Vos since Dec. 31 has been the only vehicle inspector for the Iowa Department of Education, which under state administrative code must examine each school bus every six months.

Altogether, it works out to more than 1 million checks every year — a number that could move higher if lawmakers proceed with a plan to expand required inspections to all school district cars and vans.

As it is now, Iowa's ratio of inspectors to buses falls far lower than other states, even when the state is fully staffed with two workers. Minnesota has 15 inspectors for 15,154 school buses, or one for every 1,010 vehicles. Missouri has one for every 200. Both states only inspect buses once a year.

The dearth of resources presents issues when problems are discovered.

"Because of that, we don't have any time to do call backs to check on repairs," said state Director of School Transportation Max Christensen. "We rely on the honor system that repairs are made, but occasionally something comes up."

Christensen said the system has to change.

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It takes Vos 15 to 20 minutes to go over a 60-passenger bus on his own. For years, Iowa state troopers helped, but fewer have been available since the Legislature passed a budget bill last year that gave highway patrols precedence over helping on checks.

Checks range from the minor (that the first aid kit has enough latex gloves) to the vital (that the transmission mounts are solid). Brakes, suspension, steering, exhaust, tires and lights get priority.

Minor defects result in a notice that gives a school district 30 days to fix the problem. About 1,900 buses were flagged for minor problems during the first half of the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent period for which data is available. Major problems were identified in 728 buses, resulting in an immediate out-of-service orders.

In the West Monona district, many small issues are identified by drivers, said Superintendent Lyle Schwartz. Drivers since 1999 have been required to conduct inspections with each trip.

"We do try to keep up on things before the inspection, we try to take care of our buses, but things still come up — especially when dealing with older buses," Swartz said.

During the district's Jan. 11 inspection, Voss delivered 14 30-day fix-it notices, for issues ranging from cracked seat covers to faded bus lettering. No major problems were found.

Voss said most school officials are helpful with the twice-yearly check-ups.

"When I visit local districts, I tell them, 'We're all in this together,'" he said. "Our job is student safety."

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But there are critics of the system, including Owen Freese, who until last month was Iowa's other school bus inspector. He's now executive director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association, a Holstein-based advocacy group working to improve Iowa student transportation programs.

Freese is particularly critical of the lack of follow-through by the state. He pointed to a 2011 incident in which a bus manager who handled the Waterloo, Iowa, school district fleet was found guilty of falsifying repair records. The man worked for a contracted company and claimed fixes were made when they were not.

Freese said the incident shows the lack of oversight makes the system ripe for abuse at the expense of student safety.

"If buses are not safe, it's because they are not making the repairs after we come," Freese said. "These were isolated incidents that made everybody look bad. Those school districts were our black eye."

Despite the challenges, Department of Education officials said there have been no serious bus accidents in the past five years that have resulted in injury or death.

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State Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, who chairs the House Education Committee, said lawmakers acknowledge the resource issue and are working to provide more.

But he also said the state should be doing more to check all district-owned vehicles. He plans to submit legislation that would expand the inspection requirement to district cars and vans.

"This is more of a school safety thing," Jorgensen said. "It's not that there are any major problems occurring, it's to make sure somebody is periodically checking these vehicles."

Freese said the expansion would add 1,300 vehicles, requiring far more resources from the state.

For now, Christensen, the state official, said he wants to add two new inspectors this year, in addition to filling Freese's former job, a move that would require increasing the inspection fee.

Schools currently pay $28 per bus twice a year. Officials are still working out how much the fee would increase to cover costs. Inspectors are paid $90,000 a year, funded entirely by fees. The state Board of Education is scheduled to hold a public hearing about the fee change on Jan. 31.

Sioux City schools Superintendent Paul Gausman said he doesn't like to see costs increase but that student safety has to be a priority. The district has 54 buses.

"Anytime costs go up, we have to keep an eye on that and how it will impact other areas," Gausman said. "No one will be thrilled, but transportation is key to the school's primary mission of educating children."

Freese hopes state officials understand that more needs to be done to make sure something serious doesn't happen. The workload is just too much, he said, and the stakes are too high.

"It's grueling. I had 4,000 buses, and every one of those students on my back," he said. "I am responsible for those students and what takes place on that bus."
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