MILWAUKEE— Wisconsin State Patrol warned school bus companies about safety violations like defective braking systems in 2018, but several of those school buses continued to transport students without correcting the issues, a FOX6 investigation revealed.
Now, there is a push to create tougher penalties for school bus companies that violate safety standards.
Driving with defects
Companies that operate school buses in Wisconsin are supposed to ensure each vehicle receives a scheduled annual inspection from State Patrol. In addition to the annual inspections, State Patrol performs unannounced spot checks to ensure issues have been repaired and buses actively transporting students are in good condition.
Most citations State Patrol inspectors write for school bus companies occur during spot checks.
In November, State Patrol told FOX6 that inspectors were increasing spot checks as part of an effort to better hold school bus companies accountable. Public records show that to be true.
In State Patrol's Southeast Wisconsin region, inspectors went from performing six spot checks and giving bus companies six citations in 2017 to performing 315 spot checks and giving bus companies 95 citations in 2018.
State Patrol inspectors found issues like holes in exhaust systems, seats that did not meet safety standards, inoperative warning systems, drivers without the correct credentials, and defective brakes.
State Patrol ordered all those buses "out of service" until the issues were fixed.
However, inspectors later found the same problems on the same buses that had driven thousands of additional miles.
The bus company with the most citations
This Durham School Services bus in Racine was ordered "out of service" for brake problems. The inspection report says the company "self-certified" by telling State Patrol that the repairs were made.
A later inspection revealed the brakes were still not fixed, even though the bus had driven more than 2,600 additional miles.
In Southeast Wisconsin, 45 percent of State Patrol's school bus citations went to Durham School Services - more than any other bus company.
A spokesperson for Durham School Services sent FOX6 a statement, saying:
"Before we address your questions about citations, it is important to note that over this past weekend [January 26-27], dozens of certified maintenance technicians inspected every bus we operate in Racine and Milwaukee to ensure that all buses are roadworthy. Although we didn’t run today due to the weather, when our buses return to the roads they will have been inspected by a qualified team of technicians and deemed roadworthy."
"The safety of the students we transport is our top priority and we worked tirelessly over the past 48 hours to ensure our buses are maintained to state and federal requirements. We put our own kids on our buses and we know that safe transportation starts with safe buses. "
"The citations received in 2018 were issued for various issues including inadequate seat padding, which is a manufacturer’s defect currently being addressed by the manufacturer."
"Specifically responding to your question: “For one particular bus (attached), State Patrol says although Durham School Services had self-certified that the brake problems were fixed, their inspection determined the equipment had not been repaired.” We can confirm that a technician involved in that situation was terminated. In addition, the manager of the maintenance shop in Milwaukee was terminated at the end of 2018. We cannot state strongly enough that regulations and company policy must be followed, we do not tolerate anything less."
"Moving forward, we will continue to maintain our fleet to state, federal and company standards and will not tolerate anything less by our team members. "
Durham School Services is not the only bus company in Southeast Wisconsin with citations and safety violations. Click here to read State Patrol's 2018 citation report.
Is the system working?
School bus citations are traffic forfeiture cases in Wisconsin, even when State Patrol catches a bus operating when it is supposed to be "out of service." The FOX6 Investigators went through the public records for all the fines in Southeast Wisconsin. Smaller safety violations cost school bus companies $200.50 each. The highest fines FOX6 found were $393.
The citations are for non-mandatory court appearances, meaning no one from the bus company is required to show up. Public records show most companies do not send anyone to court, accept the default judgment of "guilty due to no contest plea," and pay the fines.
The fines don't add up to much when compared to the large contracts several bus companies have with local school districts.
For example, State Patrol's citation records show Durham School Services' fines in Southeast Wisconsin added up to $14,911 in 2018 - roughly only .1 percent of the more than $13.5 million the company receives each year from Milwaukee Public Schools and Racine Unified School District.
"You have to have a hammer"
"Clearly there needs to be more follow-up because you don't want to have the incentive where companies think that they can get away with things," State Senator Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) said.
"If you'd not done the story, it probably wouldn't have been brought to people's attention," Carpenter said. "You've demonstrated that there is a problem, but now we have to make sure that...it's taken care of."
Senator Carpenter wants to explore adding more state patrol school bus inspectors, increasing their pay to make the job attractive, and redistributing their workload to help catch more safety violations.
He says he's also planning on talking to other state lawmakers about legislative changes like increasing school bus citation fines, making the legal consequences progressively more severe for repeat offenders, and requiring school bus companies to show up for court appearances.
"You have to have a hammer and people have to know there's consequences," Carpenter said.
Carpenter says he wants to move quickly, but recognizes this isn't an overnight process. He and fellow lawmakers will need input from school districts, bus companies, the Department of Transportation, Wisconsin State Patrol's new superintendent and school bus inspectors before making any big moves.
State Patrol declined an interview request for this story, but school bus inspectors who spoke with FOX6 off-camera said giving their citations more "teeth" would help with enforcement.
Cherie Hime, Executive Director of the Wisconsin School Bus Association, said she would refrain from commenting on Carpenter's ideas until she is able to review proposed legislation. She said she would check into inspections showing school buses that were operating out of service, and sent FOX6 the following statement:
"The Association is hopeful that all school bus inspections and out of service violations are taken seriously and corrected as soon as possible."
Charlie Hood, Executive Director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services sent FOX6 the following statement:
"Naturally, all of us in student transportation have safety as our number one priority. We know school buses are by far the safest way students get to school, so it disturbs us when we see even these rare instances where some operator may have knowingly used a bus to transport students that was not in compliance with all requirements for inspection and maintenance. We favor strict enforcement of all requirements for inspection, maintenance, and specifications of school buses, as well as those pertaining to qualifications of school bus drivers."
"How do we balance wanting to hold these bus companies accountable, but also recognizing that they're dealing with equipment, and equipment breaks?" FO6 Investigator Amanda St. Hilaire asked.
"Talking to my constituents, I think some of them would understand that things do happen," Carpenter said. "But if there’s a pattern or if it’s something major...if it’s not fixed, then it’s a snowballing effect. Because if you let one thing go and think that's OK, it's going to tally up that other things could also be let go. And that's the danger."
"Hopefully this will not be a story where there's a bus accident, kids are injured," Carpenter added. "And you find out there’s something that could have been done, should have been done, and wasn’t done. I mean that's the thing that should keep people up at night."