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School bus mechanic filed inaccurate inspection reports

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State inspectors pull four buses off road for mechanical, safety concerns

By BEN CARLSON

 The head mechanic at the Anderson County school bus garage knowingly filled out or signed off on inaccurate monthly inspection reports, an issue that came to light after state inspectors removed four buses from the road for mechanical and safety concerns.

School officials, including the head mechanic, acknowledged that the monthly inspection reports, which are statutorily required, were not filled out accurately and did not reflect problems with the buses, which were nevertheless allowed to transport students.

Inspectors with the Kentucky Department of Education found a litany of problems with the buses, ranging from issues with emergency exits, a “severe” air leak in a parking brake valve, broken seats, rusted out steps, tie rod and wheel bearing issues, incomplete first aid kits, and others.

All but one of the buses have been repaired and returned to the road. Bus 48, which was cited as having sustained structural damage above an emergency exit window more than a year ago when its driver struck a limb on Lock Road, has not been placed back in service.

Each of the four buses ordered off the road by state inspectors had recently been inspected by mechanics employed by the bus garage, and all had been given clean bills of health, according to documents obtained by The Anderson News. 

State inspectors documented the structural damage to Bus 48 on Oct. 27, along with the following:

Loose seat bottoms

Foam that needs replacing on “numerous” seats

No low air pressure light

Engine oil 6 quarts low

First aid kit not complete

Cracked steering wheel

Needs front shocks

Problem with the left front wheel bearing

Oil pan leaking 

That same bus was inspected by mechanics with the school system just four days earlier on Oct. 23. According to the inspection report done that day, none of the above items were listed as needing to be fixed, and all items on the inspection report were checked off by the mechanic and head mechanic Kevin Gilliam as being “OK.”

The Oct. 23 inspection report was the only monthly report available. Superintendent Sheila Mitchell said previous monthly inspection reports for the bus did not exist. She said she believes the inspections were performed, but the mechanics failed to fill out the proper form to document that work.

Mitchell and Derek Shouse, the district’s director of pupil services, said they could not answer how bus 48 and others developed so many problems in the time between the local and state inspections, because they aren’t mechanics. They also declined to make available the district’s transportation director, Jeff Young, saying he’s a driver, not a mechanic.

They instead referred the question to Gilliam, who in a written statement acknowledged that the reports were not filled out accurately. 

The monthly reports, mandated by KAR 702 KAR 5:030 (2), requires the superintendent to ensure the inspections are done and that reports of the inspections are kept on file. The report covers nearly all aspects of a bus, including checks to its axles, chassis, frame, fuel, engine, cab and body and tires.

Mechanics have three options on each item on the report. They can use an X, meaning repairs are needed; a 0 to indicate that adjustments were made; or a check mark to indicate the item is OK.

Mechanic inspection reports for bus 48 and several others removed from the road by the state had all check marks and were initialed by the mechanic and/or Gilliam.

In his statement, Gilliam said if a “severe” problem was found, the bus would be parked. Other problems found would be prioritized to be fixed at a later date.

“The expectation is that it’s supposed to be in the report,” said Mitchell. “That clearly hasn’t been done. They’re going to improve on that and they’re going to fix it in the future.”

Bus 48 wasn’t alone in having a host of issues cited by state inspectors. Bus 3 was also inspected by the state Oct. 27, four days after it was inspected by bus garage mechanics. Yet state inspectors cited the following issues:

Non-working roof hatch buzzers

Cloudy windshield

11 seat cushions need to be replaced

Three seat backs broken

Bad parking brake valve

Front defroster fan problems

Bad left tie rod

Rusted fuel tank

A “stage 3” oil leak

6 quarts low on oil

Gilliam said the state inspectors “inspect in a blunt, direct approach at new standards.”

“They are expecting older buses to be like brand new buses and at like-new conditions,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said he is working with his mechanics to improve.

“We have taken the state’s recommendations and some of our own ideas to restructure and improve our procedures and protocols,” he said. 

Gilliam said as for first aid kits not being complete and low engine oil issues, those issues fall to the drivers.

“That is why the drivers are required to do a daily inspection and write down any repairs needed and turned in,” he said. “Otherwise, problems will go unchecked until the next scheduled service.”

Bus 32 was one of the four removed from the road. State inspectors found a list of problems Oct. 17, including:

A number of seats with broken backs

A loose inside door handle

Torn seats

Instructions missing on emergency exit windows

A “severe” air leak in a parking brake valve

The bus had been inspected Sept. 5 and again Oct. 6 and none of the above issues, or any other issues with the bus, were noted.

Bus 7 was also inspected by state officials Oct. 27, three days after mechanics at the bus garage marked on an inspection report that everything was “OK.”

Problems with bus 7 included:

Bad seat bottoms

Bad latch on an emergency window

Buzzer not working on roof hatch

Broken front door

An exhaust leak

Bus 22 was inspected by the state Oct. 17, about three weeks after a report shows it was inspected by mechanics at the bus garage. Problems included:

Loose seat bottoms

Rear door problems

Rusted entry steps

Cut seats

First aid kit not complete

Broken mirror bracket

Shouse and Mitchell both said they have addressed the issues noted by state inspectors with the bus garage and insist that the district’s aging fleet of buses is safe.

“We’ve worked hard since this came to our attention to work with the transportation department and learn as much as we can and make sure expectations are reinforced and to adhere to policies and procedures,” Mitchell said. 

Asked directly if she’s confident the inspections were being done and done properly by the mechanics, Mitchell did not say yes.

“We expect our mechanics to adhere to the guidelines, period,” she said. “What I can speak to is that the mechanics are trained to do that job and have been doing it for years.”

“We’re in the process of readdressing this with our mechanics,” Shouse said. “If a bus doesn’t belong on the road, don’t let it on the road. Hopefully this process alerts us to these gaps.”