More than a dozen buses lined up in front of a garage Monday morning that sits behind the school system’s department of supporting services in Loveville, waiting to be inspected before the start of the new school year.
Time to inspect
Diane Morgan, the transportation specialist for St. Mary’s public schools, stood by the garage with a tablet in her hand, entering information from each bus inspection into the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration portal. During the inspections, which happen three times a year, they check out the entire bus — from the wheels and brakes, to emergency equipment, lights and air quality.
“We’re trying to make sure they’re good by the time they go out on the road,” Morgan said.
She and the rest of the team make sure the buses are in top shape for the start of the new school year — Tuesday, Sept. 3, for most St. Mary’s public schools. There were eight other people working on the buses that morning, including an inspector from the state.
“If we didn’t have this many people here together, there’s no way that we could do what we do,” Morgan said.
Kelly Cooke, a St. Mary’s bus driver trainer, stuck a red tag on the back of Bus 849 because it had oil in the exhaust. Since it did not pass inspection, it has 30 days to fix the problem.
The buses during Monday’s inspection were at least 12 years old, nearing regulated life expectancy of 15 years, and are used as spares. She said she was expecting 45 to 50 buses to come through for their checkups between Monday and Tuesday.
The inspections of the other 175 to 200 buses happened last week and took five days at various locations like Chopticon High School, Great Mills High School and the Hollywood firehouse.
Morgan said the inspection requirements have changed over the years.
“There are more safety items now than there were 15 years ago,” she said.
The transportation specialist added that bus seats were recently made higher for safety reasons, however, the bus seats were tall when she was a driver 30 years ago.
Keeping an eye inside and out
Jeff Thompson, the school system’s director of transportation, said 12-year-old buses are replaced with new ones for regular bus runs. The replacements all have air conditioning, six high-definition cameras and additional safety features. There are 18 new buses this year, and seven of them were sitting in the lot in the back. Altogether, there are 287 buses from St. Mary’s public schools, and 262 of those buses belong to contractors.
Thompson said a regular route bus that seats 72 passengers costs $108,000. A lift bus, which comes with a wheelchair lift, metal tracks to keep a wheel chair in place, integrated child seats and a three-point seat belt costs as much as $120,000.
Five buses, with routes on Point Lookout Road in the Callaway area, also have a camera system on the outside to capture the license plates of cars that might illegally drive past the when the bus’ red light and stop sign are activated.
Thompson said the footage could potentially be sent to the sheriff’s office, and the driver could be fined $250.
There are also cameras inside the buses, which Thompson said “helps the school system process things quicker” and “helps clarify what’s going on” when it comes to altercations between students.
While talking about the cameras’ efficiencies, Thompson said video footage from a school bus was once requested by a fire marshal because it captured a fire happening across the street in the Country Lakes neighborhood of Mechanicsville.
Unsatisfied contracted bus drivers protested on the grassy corner next to Benjamin Banneker Elementary School last spring demanding their $16.75 an hour pay raise to $20 an hour.
Over three months later, Dawn Murphy, a driver and organizer of the protest, said Thompson told her they were looking to find more money for the drivers.
“He seems like he’s trying to follow through on his word,” Murphy said.
“The school system is really going to be reviewing and moving and looking at options in the budget,” Thompson said Monday.
In April, Thompson said the drivers can “look at different options” if they are unhappy with the pay at their current contractor, which is what Murphy decided to do. She worked with Kessler Bus Service last school year and now works for a new contractor who pays them on their days off.
Murphy said she struggled finding a part-time job a few months ago because of the bus driving hours, which started at 6 a.m. She now has a second job that allows her to work from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Although Murphy is hopeful the transportation department will pay more, she said she is still waiting to see what happens.
“That’s all we can do is be patient,” she said.
Adding up the buses
In today’s St. Mary’s school board meeting, Thompson plans to request approval of a new bus contractor and to transfer 19 school buses into replacement buses.
If approved, the contractors of the 19 replacements would receive a new six-year contract associated with the new school bus, the 12 six-year bus contractors whose contracts are ending would be awarded an additional six years, and all spare buses would receive a one-year agreement.