State

Modesto City Schools bus care faulted by CHP

The California Highway Patrol says Modesto City Schools has not done enough to maintain its bus fleet.

Civilian CHP inspectors made an unannounced inspection this month at the district's bus operations and found that the fleet maintenance program was "unsatisfactory."

That's a rare occurrence for the 215 private and public school bus maintenance operations the CHP's Central Division inspects each year in the San Joaquin Valley.

Last year, no more than six of the 215 bus operations received an unsatisfactory rating, said Greg Biklian, the CHP's Central Division Motor Carrier Safety Unit supervisor.

The school district says all of the mechanical problems on the buses, such as brakes being out of alignment or loose or missing mounting bolts, have been corrected. CHP officials emphasized that none of the mechanical problems they found posed an imminent danger to students.

School districts are required to have their mechanics inspect their buses at least every 3,000 miles or 45 days, whichever is sooner. Modesto City Schools officials say they follow that requirement.

But Biklian said the number of mechanical problems that CHP inspectors found on the district's buses in two recent inspections clearly pointed to a problem with the district's maintenance program.

"We've taken these reports very seriously," said Dennis Snelling, Modesto City Schools' director of business services. "We are re-examining our entire operation and have brought in a supervisor from another school district to look at our operation from top to bottom."

CHP Motor Carrier Specialist Gary Boswell said Modesto's maintenance operations had received satisfactory ratings from 1995 to 2009 except for 2006, when the district received an unsatisfactory rating for not doing an annual review of the driving history of one bus driver.

Snelling could not explain why the district's bus maintenance operations received a poor mark this year.

"That's what we are trying to figure out," he said. "I think this took us by surprise. We are evaluating what happened to make sure it doesn't happen again."

While the shop supervisor is retiring after more than three decades with the district, Snelling said, bus maintenance operations have essentially the same workers as in the past few years.

And although the district has sliced about $21 million from its budget in the past two years because of state budget cuts and the recession, Snelling said the transportation budget has not been cut.

He said the district has increased its monitoring and training programs and is sending its six mechanics to a free CHP training program. The district is working closely with the CHP.

Boswell said he will recheck Modesto's bus maintenance program in a few months. The visit will be unannounced. Biklian said every school bus maintenance program has passed a reinspection in his 16 years with the CHP.

The CHP made the unannounced inspection March 3 after six of 29 Modesto schools' buses were found to have mechanical problems that warranted putting them out of service as part of the CHP's annual certification of the district's bus fleet done over winter break. The annual certification inspection is scheduled.

The March 3 inspection found mechanical problems with four of the 14 buses inspectors checked that warranted taking the buses out of service until they were fixed. That earned the district the unsatisfactory rating for its bus maintenance operations.

The CHP inspects and certifies school buses annually. In Modesto's case, the CHP inspects about half of the district's 62 buses over winter break and the remaining buses over spring break.

The CHP inspects school bus maintenance facilities at least once a year, rating them as satisfactory, conditional or unsatisfactory.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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