Dallas County school bus drivers complain of poor maintenance

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on November 1, 2012 at 10:41 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 1 at 11:10 PM

DALLAS -- Dallas County Schools (DCS) is not a school system -- it's a bus line, paid for by a special tax for Dallas County property owners. And in the county, 14 independent school districts use DCS to provide a transportation system for their school kids.

For months, News 8 Investigates been looking at how the buses are maintained, how they're driven, and how the system is managed.

Some bus drivers say the system and its buses are in bad need of repair.

"Maintenance needs to be taken care of," said Kelvin Manuel, a former bus driver who continues to be a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. "I mean, you're transporting children."

"The brakes went all the way down to the floor," said driver Betty Jacobs. "It did not stop."

Jacobs' bus crashed into a bus driven by Caroline Finley in June.

"These kids lives are in danger," Finley said. "And it's putting everybody's life in danger."

Dallas County Schools Superintendent Rick Sorrells defends his system.

"Statistically, if you look at it, we're one of the safest in the State of Texas," Sorrells said.

Manuel, the Woodrow Wilson history teacher, drove a bus in addition to his classroom duties until this fall. He did not want the children in his bus to be a statistic. He was carrying ten special-ed students to Woodrow last spring when the front wheel of his bus simply folded under the vehicle.

"Those kinds of things just shouldn't happen," Manuel said.

He waited for another bus to pick up his students.

When a bus fails in the field, and drivers complain they often do, the students' schedules can be delayed from minutes to hours.

Manuel's defective vehicle went into repair. Three days later, he said the same bus had the same problem again, although the wheel did not fold all the way under.

"They returned the bus to me and told me the bus was repaired," he said. "It became very quickly blatantly obvious that it had not been."

Drivers Betty Jacobs and Caroline Finley were near Skillman and Royal in Dallas when their crash happened. There were about 60 students on the two vehicles.

Betty remembers when she realized she couldn't stop her bus before it hit Caroline's in the rear. "I think I'm fixing to die," she recalled.

"She hit me real hard," Caroline said of the rear-end collision. "My seat belt snapped back, and it hit my hat. And knocked my glasses off. It knocked my earrings off."

Both drivers were shocked when mechanics from the Richardson repair shopped removed Betty's bus before police arrived. So were Dallas police.

Betty Jacobs said that very same morning, mechanics had told her the brakes were fine, and it was good to go.

"They brought the bus back to me and told me everything was repaired on the bus," Jacobs said. "Everything was ready. The bus was fixed."

Vera Shedd quit her job as a driver last year to take care of her mother in East Texas. But her memories of the mechanical condition of DCS buses are vivid.

"To me, they're just negligent," she said. "It seemed like they didn't care."

Shedd cited incidents of non-working headlights, breakdowns and horns that didn't honk. Her worst memory is a driving a bus full of students to the Dallas Zoo last year. After dropping them off in the parking lot, she said she parked her bus, set the brake, and left it.

Then, she said, the brake failed and the vehicle started rolling down a hill.

"The way it was headed, it was gonna go down a hill and run into some kids and stuff who was coming out of the zoo," she said.

Shedd said a man jumped in the bus as it was slowly rolling, grabbed the wheel and steered it into a tree before it could speed up and do damage.

DCS told News 8 Shedd did not set the parking brake properly. Shedd said DCS never told her that.

Rick Sorrells of DCS says his buses "are quite safe mechanically."

DCS has 1,690 buses. It has 62 mechanics to repair them, spread out over a dozen bus lots. That averages out to one mechanic for every 25 buses, which is about the national average, Sorrells said. He said supervisors can be called into work as mechanics, if they're needed.

After the June accident, DCS became concerned about mechanical failure on buses and did a random check of the whole system. Sorrells said it found 37 more that needed repair. He said DCS is now implementing a program to monitor repairs as they happen.

Hector Plancarte is not convinced.

His twin boys and daughter were on the bus that rear-ended Caroline Finley's school bus in June. His daughter sprained her hand and was taken to the hospital. He had to take a day off work to tend to her needs. He's never been reimbursed for his hospital expenses.

"If they don't want to pay for that, who's going to pay if something else happens?" Plancarte said.

DISD's new superintendent, Mike Miles, said DCS is one of the top-ten items on his problem list.

DCS said its accident rate is better than some, and worse than others. Drivers, on the other hand, say when it comes to accidents, it only takes one.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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