CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Inspectors with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction found dangerous defects that forced some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools buses off the road during an annual safety audit this spring.
On Your Side Investigates obtained a copy of the audit after we were tipped off by a whistle blower about growing concerns with the safety of the district's buses. At the center of the concerns is a continued shortage of mechanics to inspect and repair buses as necessary.
We spoke with a former CMS bus mechanic, who left the district after nearly ten years on the job, who said the growing bus-to-mechanic ratio poses a safety risk to students. He asked his identity be protected out of fear of retaliation for speaking out.
"If you have a bunch of buses that you have to get inspected in a short window of time, you can kind of see what's going to happen. They're not going to get inspected properly," the former mechanic said.
State law requires each school bus to be inspected every 30 days. The inspection checklist is thorough and covers everything from brakes and tires to seat covers and first aid kits.
Once a year, an inspector from NCDPI visits each school district and performs an audit on a sample of a school district's buses to ensure they meet state requirements.
A district is given a score based on the amount of defects found on its buses. The lower the score, the fewer defects.
The average score for the western region of North Carolina last school year was a 23.18. CMS scored much higher, with enough defects to score a 38.91; up nearly eight points from the previous year.
The safety audit inspector looked at 96 school buses. Out of that sample, 24 buses were taken off the road immediately until dangerous safety defects could be fixed.
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.
"Breaks and suspensions, those are things that would directly cause a safety issue," the former CMS mechanic told On Your Side Investigates.
A spokeswoman for CMS refused to make anyone available to explain why the number of defects on district buses is on the rise. Instead, district transportation director Janet Thomas issued the following statement:
"CMS is committed to the maintenance and operation of a safe school bus fleet of more than 1000 school buses. The NCDPI annual audit provides the district a benchmark of where improvements should be made in our system of maintenance. Each day our district is working to get better. CMS takes pride in its level of preventative maintenance on a fleet of school buses covering more than 172,000 miles daily."
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.
For now, the former CMS mechanic says he advises parents to ask questions before letting their child ride the bus.
"If I can avoid it, anyway I could avoid my children being on a CMS bus, they would not be on a CMS bus," he said.