City schools to put age limit on buses

System to require monthly checks

will revamp fleet next year

February 26, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Saying the safety of students is its "No. 1 priority," the Baltimore school system is requiring buses 10 years and older to be inspected each month for the rest of the school year and will not allow buses that old to carry children next year.

The monthly inspections of the system's older buses will begin Friday, schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said yesterday.

And last night, the Maryland Senate rejected a bill that could have weakened the state's school bus safety standards by eliminating a requirement for the state schools superintendent to grant waivers to local school systems for older buses.

Pyatt, in outlining the city's new procedures, said contractors that have a high proportion of buses that fail mandated safety inspections will also be required to bring their buses for monthly checks. Next school year, the system will not allow buses 10 years or older to carry children.

"It's simply a recognition of the fact that a growing number of vehicles in our fleet are aging," Pyatt said. "It's primarily out of concern for the safety of the 25,000 or more students that we transport ... to school every day."

The Sun reported Sunday that more than 25 percent of the city's 364 buses failed safety inspections in the past three years, several times the percentage of most other school systems in the state. In most area counties, buses fail less than 10 percent of required inspections.

Using buses sold off by other jurisdictions, Baltimore's bus contractors have put together the oldest fleet in the state. Some buses that transport city students are so old that surrounding counties would not allow them to be used.

No bus accidents in Baltimore in the past three years have been attributed to mechanical failure, city and state accident records show.

Pyatt said the new policies governing the school system's older buses have been in the works for some time and that a request for proposals from contractors was sent out last week outlining the new age restrictions on buses for the 2002-2003 school year.

About 150 of the buses used by the system are 10 or more years old, Pyatt said, and the new policy would likely reduce the number of contractors able to provide transportation services to city schools. Transportation for most city students is handled by 20 private bus contractors.

State law says that a school bus that passes safety standards may be on the road for 12 years. Exceptions are allowed for buses older than 12 years if they meet additional safety requirements.

Among the state safety standards is a requirement that the state schools superintendent grant a waiver after the older school buses pass inspections. The bill rejected on a 20-24 vote by the Senate last night would have eliminated the superintendent from that process.

"I just don't think we should be taking home less stringent standards," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who led the floor fight against the bill. "This bill is bad for safety for the children riding buses in Maryland."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said the bill was aimed only at creating less work for the state superintendent, and that it "does not eliminate any safety requirements whatsoever."

But other legislators said they want the superintendent to remain involved - particularly after seeing The Sun report on school bus inspection records.

"We do, in the city, have problems with our buses," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "I would not want to take the superintendent out of the scenario."

Pyatt said the school system's new policy does not contradict state law, but supplements it.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he plans to speak with the school system's chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, about the bus issue today.

"It causes me great concern if children in our city are being transported on buses that are not as safe as those in other places," he said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon called it "disturbing" that so many buses used by the school system had failed inspections, and said that the school board needs to fix the problem.

"It's disturbing that they failed the inspections because we are talking about the lives of young people," she said. "As a parent I would not want my child on these school buses."

Dixon added that the council had planned a hearing about safe driving by bus operators and intends to ask school officials about the failed bus inspections as well.

Sun staff writers Caitlin Francke, Howard Libit and Michael James contributed to this article.

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