Keeping track of school bus inspections has become more streamlined in the wake of a state auditor’s report, released earlier this summer, that cited the North Dakota Highway Patrol for not following its internal inspection policies.
Bus inspection data is being incorporated into an automated reporting system, according to an official with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. The North Dakota Highway Patrol, too, confirmed it has been looking at ways to revamp its bus inspection system, a Highway Patrol official said.
Don Williams, who serves as the state director for pupil transportation with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, said that STARS, which stands for "State Automated Reporting System," serves as a hub for information, such as whether inspections have been conducted, by whom, and when any defects are fixed.
If a defect is discovered, that bus is taken out of service and “will remain out of service until that defect is fixed,” Williams said.
In June, state Auditor Joshua Gallion issued a report claiming the Highway Patrol was not following its internal policies on bus inspections. According to the audit, the Highway Patrol was inaccurately tracking inspections and wasn't working from a complete list of vehicles to be inspected.
The report also suggested that school districts have been complacent in reporting ownership and inspection information about school buses. Gallion speculated whether state aid could be withheld from districts that do not provide complete information.
Automating bus inspection information was “not really” a reaction to the auditor’s report, according to Williams.
“It’s something we’ve been working on, automating the bus driver and bus inspection things. It was just kind of coincidental on the timing though," he said.
The DPI follows federal Department of Transportation standards regarding bus inspections, he said, and by the end of this school year, school districts will be required by the DPI to report who has inspected their bus fleet and when.
In North Dakota, school buses should be inspected by a qualified mechanic every year, said Williams.
School districts may request inspections from the North Dakota Highway Patrol or contract with a business that employs qualified mechanics, if they have no such person on staff.
The Highway Patrol provides information to school districts that specifies what experience and training a mechanic must have to be considered qualified, Williams said. It also provides a sample inspection checklist, though school districts may create their own.
When a school district contracts with an entity, “it most typically is not the district’s responsibility to get those buses inspected. That would fall on the contractor themselves to have those buses inspected,” Williams said. “That information should definitely be shared with the district, so the district at least knows that they’re contracting with an entity that ensures that the buses have been inspected.”
Highway Patrol plays a role
The North Dakota Highway Patrol has been conducting external bus inspections for school districts for years, said Sgt. Wade Kadrmas, safety and education officer for the agency.
In response to the state auditor’s report released in June, Kadrmas said: “We’re trying to address the audit findings. We were in the process of actually trying to revamp the process when this audit hit us.”
North Dakota school districts have until mid-October to request bus inspections through the Highway Patrol, “if they can’t line up a qualified individual to inspect their buses,” Kadrmas said.
The requests are reviewed by the patrol, to make sure all necessary information has been included, and forwarded to the Highway Patrol commander in the school district’s area to see that the inspection is conducted, Kadrmas said.
Smaller school districts are more likely to ask for an inspection from the Highway Patrol, he said, because larger districts usually have contracts with bus services with qualified mechanics.
“We accommodate schools that don’t have the ability to do that,” Kadrmas said.
Some school districts in northeastern North Dakota, including Northwood, Cando, St. John, Langdon, Mayville-Portland-Clifford-Galesburg, and Cavalier, as well as the Head Start program in Grand Forks, requested inspections before the start of school this year, he said.
Grand Forks contracts duties
Grand Forks Public Schools, which does not own buses, contracts with Dietrich Bus Service. Because Dietrich buses cross state lines, the company conducts inspections that meet federal Department of Transportation standards, said Brian Yanish, contract manager for Dietrich Bus Service, of Valley City, N.D.
Dietrich employs qualified mechanics who conduct the DOT inspections, Yanish said.
“Because we’re private, we’re held to a higher standard than the school district,” he said. “We do not only an exterior safety inspection – check all the working lights and exits and horns and buzzers – but all the safety-sensitive, inner workings of the bus, too,” he said.
“The Highway Patrol will inspect 30% of your fleet every year,” Yanish said. “This practice has been in effect for about two years. (The Highway Patrol) randomly selects buses so they all have to be prepared to pass the inspection. They used to come in once a year and do 100% of the fleet.”
“We go through every bus and self-inspect before the first day of school,” he said. “We still notify and have the Highway Patrol come in and do the 30% testing.”
Dietrich Bus Service operates 38 buses, running 65 routes a day, in Grand Forks, said John Neal, manager with Dietrich’s Grand Forks office. Neal indicated that all buses are inspected at least once a year and, sometimes, several times a year.
“If there’s a defect and it’s a safety issue, the bus is immediately withdrawn from use," he said.
“We definitely do not try to squeak by,” Neal said. “If buses are not safe, they don’t leave the lot.”
Aiming to comply
The Hillsboro School District has a mechanic and assistant mechanic on staff.
“Their main role is keeping the buses maintained,” said Paula Suda, Hillsboro School District’s superintendent. Each year, the head mechanic performs an annual inspection of the district’s fleet of vehicles, which is made up of seven yellow school buses, one white activity bus, two mini-buses and four school vehicles, Suda said.
“We feel very confident in what he does,” she said.
At the northern end of the Red River Valley, Langdon Area School contracts bus services with Hartley’s School Buses Inc. in Rugby, N.D.
“They provide the buses and the drivers for our routes in the morning and evening,” said Daren Christianson, Langdon Area Schools’ superintendent. “It’s a wonderful deal.”
Park River Area School has a fleet of 10 buses, which are inspected by the bus foreman, said Kirk Ham, Park River Area School District’s superintendent.
“We had them inspected right before school started,” Ham said.
Bus drivers also are supposed to do daily “walk-arounds,” checking things like stop arms and warning lights, before they start their daily routes, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction School Bus Driver’s Guide. The walk-around inspections are to be on the interior and exterior of the buses. Interior inspections detailed in the 62-page driver’s guide include checking lights, emergency door operation and tires. Inside, the inspection includes checking gauges and stop arm and service door controls.
Minnesota has a similar system. The Minnesota State Patrol inspects every bus and van in a school district or contractor’s fleet each year, checking 79 different parts of each bus – tires, mirrors, exhaust, steering and even the exterior color.
Each problem means a deduction from a starting score of 100, and problems that are presumably more dangerous deduct a considerable amount of points: defective brakes or a missing first-aid kit are a 25-point deduction, for instance, but a cracked rear-view mirror or improperly colored trim is a five-point deduction.
Buses that score 96 or higher pass the inspection and a sticker certifying their roadworthiness is attached; scores of 80-95 warrant a “temporary inspection certificate” that requires the bus be reinspected, and its deficiencies corrected, within 14 days; scores below 80 mean the bus is immediately barred from transporting students until the problem or problems are fixed.
The Minnesota State Patrol sends copies of its findings to each school district it inspects and compiles annual lists of its inspection results that it posts on its website. East Grand Forks Public Schools’ results for 2019 have yet to be posted, but results from 2018 indicate that two vehicles got a temporary certificate. The rest passed, which means inspectors found only minor defects, if any. One of the district’s buses failed its inspection in 2017, and two others got temporary certificates then.
Drivers also perform their own inspections before each route, school district staff said. At East Grand Forks, transportation workers check 78 different parts of their bus – oil levels, the windshield, the horn, the filler cap, and more – and mark each as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.