No requirement for charter school buses to be inspected in NC

Charter schools skipping bus inspections

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A loophole in North Carolina state law allows school buses at dozens of schools to go un-inspected.

Charter schools are schools that are operated by private organizations but receive public tax dollars. There are currently 146 charter schools in the Tar Heel State, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

State law only requires that charter schools ensure transportation isn't a barrier to a student attending their school. There is no requirement to offer transportation services.

Because of that, charter school administrators said, the state does not provide any money for transportation.

Public schools, on the other hand, are provided buses for student transportation to and from school. Those buses also come with state-supported maintenance. Along with that funding from the state come requirements that each public school bus be inspected every 30 days.

Unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to conduct any inspections on their buses and there are no standardized maintenance requirements. Despite that, NCDPI offers free courtesy inspections to all charter schools once a year.

There are 35 charter schools in the greater Charlotte region. Of those, 12 offer some form of bus transportation to students, whether it be door-to-door service our something that more closely resembles a shuttle from the school to just a few stops.

Lincoln Charter School

For the 2014-2015 school year, only two Charlotte-area charter schools took the state up on its offer of a free courtesy inspection.

Lincoln Charter School had 13 buses inspected by a NCDPI transportation consultant. Records obtained by On Your Side Investigates show three of the buses that were inspected were taken out of service until safety issues could be repaired.

Each safety violation found in an inspection carries a certain number of points, based on the severity of the violation, according to a letter sent to Lincoln Charter School's principal by the NCDPI inspector. Each point means a new violation-- the lower the school the fewer the violations.

The school's buses received an average score of 46.38. The average score for the 485 buses inspected in 2014 was 23.18, according to NCDPI.

Lincoln Charter School's average score of 46 was an improvement over the 102 average school from the previous year, records show.

Sugar Creek Charter School

The only other charter school to agree to a courtesy inspection from NCDPI for the 2014-2015 school year was Sugar Creek Charter School, records show.
A state inspector first looked at Sugar Creek's school buses in July 2014.

According to records obtained by On Your Side Investigates, the inspector looked at ten school buses. Each bus was found to have problems that required the bus to be taken out of service, according to a letter from the state inspector to the school's principal, Cheryl Turner.

"As this report indicates, the condition of your school buses has worsened since by last visit," state transportation field consultant Randy Henson wrote. "I saw many repeat defects discovered from last year's report. The trend will continue downward until a regular plan for inspections and maintenance is established."

Records from the July inspection show Henson found problems including worn brakes, broken headlights and tail lights and leaking oil.

Turner, the school's principal, said the inspection report looks worse than it really is.

"There were things that were not on our radar," Turner said of the violations found in Henson's July inspection. "But they were not things that would make the bus so unsafe I would not put children on it."

Turner said her school's buses are regularly inspected by the manufacturer, which uses a different set of safety criteria than NCDPI.

"I was confident the buses were safe," Turner said. "What it was is that there is obviously a different set of criteria that are being used by the state for school buses than the criteria the manufacturer is using for safety."

After Henson's inspection in July, Turner said the school hired a state-licensed inspector to conduct monthly safety inspections on the buses. Turner said the measure was voluntary and came at an added expense of roughly $1,500 each month.

"We decided to go with what was more stringent because we decided that was what was probably going to create better safety," she said.

But Henson, the state inspector, found more of the same problems when he returned to the school in January for another inspection.

Records from the January inspection show seven of the nine buses that were inspected had safety issues that required them to be taken out of service.

According to the inspection records, Henson found school buses without working safety buzzers for the rear emergency exit, brakes with loose grease fluid drums and handles missing or loose from emergency window exits.

"The attached report shows definite improvement over my last visit but there is still much work to do," Henson said in a letter to Turner.

In an interview with On Your Side Investigates, Turner said she spends more money to operate her school buses than public schools do each year.

"I spend about $700,000 a year on buses and we don't get any extra money for buses," she said.

School buses still safe

Derek Graham, who oversees the transportation office for NCDPI, said school buses are still a safe bet for students.

"Just by the very nature of it being a school bus, there's a lot of inherent safety for kids," Graham said.

A phone survey of other charter schools in the Charlotte area show each school has its own inspection and maintenance standard.

Kennedy Charter School in Charlotte inspects its buses every 6,000 miles and representative said.

The bylaws for Pine Lake Preparatory School in Mooresville, which operates one bus with just two stops, call for inspections commensurate to what the state requires for its buses.

Until the law changes, though, there will be no uniform standard for ensuring charter school buses are safe to transport children.

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