After review finds problems, APS tightens up school bus inspections

Mechanics work on Atlanta Public School busses at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
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Mechanics work on Atlanta Public School busses at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Atlanta Public Schools is tightening up inspections and other safety procedures after an internal review found many school buses missed required checkups and revealed other transportation concerns.

The report found that 146 buses missed a monthly, state-mandated inspection last spring. Of the 283 inspected buses, nearly two thirds were “repeat red tags,” meaning they still needed repairs that had been flagged during the vehicle’s last inspection and “should not be in service.”

About 50 buses did not have an annual decal, which marks buses that have passed the once-a-year inspection by the Georgia Department of Public Safety. At least five of the buses without up-to-date decals were used to transport students, according to the APS Office of Internal Compliance.

The review also determined that some drivers had not gotten an annual physical exam, intended to ensure drivers have no health conditions that could endanger students. Some drivers missed required training, and daily inspections meant to happen before and after drivers pick up and drop off students were “not conducted consistently.”

Failing to perform various inspections could increase the likelihood of accidents or result in student injuries, according to the report.

“The lack of consistent execution of key controls has created issues that could have an adverse effect on the district and our students,” states the audit, which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request.

APS officials said they began working to fix issues before the review was completed in December, and said they’re still tightening up policies and procedures.

“Any of these audit issues have not resulted in students being compromised on a bus,” said John Franklin, executive director of transportation.

Bus inspections identify big and small flaws— from critical problems with brakes and steering to less-significant issues such as a damaged seat cushion.

Harvey Barnerd prepares to change the brakes on a school bus at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
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Harvey Barnerd prepares to change the brakes on a school bus at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

While safety is a top priority for districts across metro Atlanta, it's unclear how many buses skip inspections. Each school district is responsible for providing buses to be inspected annually by the state public safety department's Motor Carrier Compliance Division and tracking the ones that missed inspections.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, for example, said it audits “the progress of our monthly inspection schedule on a daily basis.” A Fulton County Schools spokeswoman said the district “strictly adheres” to monthly inspections and reported a successful annual state inspection in May.

The state, which conducts nearly 20,000 annual school bus inspections, does not keep tabs on how many buses missed a yearly inspection.

A new database will allow the state to monitor school districts to see which buses have had an annual inspection. That software program will cost about $280,000 and is scheduled to launch by the end of this year.

‘The process worked’

It’s a huge operation to ensure that school buses operate properly. APS currently has 422 buses and hundreds of drivers who take roughly 30,000 students to school. Every bus and every driver must adhere to numerous federal and state regulations intended to protect students.

Mechanics work on Atlanta Public School busses at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
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Mechanics work on Atlanta Public School busses at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

The district plans to hire several new administrators to oversee operations and meet “meticulous requirements,” such as making sure all drivers obtain an annual physical exam and that all of their driving records are regularly reviewed, Franklin said.

APS also made scheduling adjustments so drivers can get to required inspections. During the state’s annual inspection window in March, the district put a moratorium on field trips so all buses could be inspected. The district urged schools to pick other times of the year to take field trips, and APS plans to continue that approach.

By early July, the district plans to launch a new software program to track repairs and inspections at a cost of up to $144,631 a year, according to school board documents.

Alonzo Roberson runs a diagnostic on a school bus at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
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Alonzo Roberson runs a diagnostic on a school bus at the Atlanta Public Schools Transportation hub in Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community, Friday, May 31, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Not every bus slapped with a “red tag” at a monthly inspection poses a serious concern. Sometimes, it marks an issue that doesn’t require immediate repair, Franklin said.

No specific incident prompted the APS transportation audit. It's one of several reviews the district has done recently to catch problems that could cause the district trouble, from looking into employees' use of purchasing cards to monitoring school cash funds.

APS auditors will check to see if the district has addressed the most critical transportation issues before school resumes in August. That will include making sure buses have the annual inspection decal, said Connie Brown, executive director of internal compliance.

“I think the process worked. I think we went in, and we identified things that could potentially, if they go unchecked, could negatively impact our kids,” she said, adding that district administrators did not push back against the findings and recommendations. “Our kids are the most important thing to the district.”

About Atlanta Public Schools transportation

Number of school buses: 422

Average age of buses: 9 years

Daily ridership: 28,000 to 29,000 students