Mom loses confidence in school bus safety

Staff WriterMay 2, 2009 


    School bus mechanical records are public documents. To get the mechanical record of a school bus in Wake County, call 856-8050.

Kim Wnorowski refuses to put her 7-year-old daughter on the school bus headed to Dillard Drive Elementary School in Cary anymore.

Wnorowski said she has been driving her daughter to school since she was told that the daughter's bus had serious mechanical problems. She asked The News & Observer to look into the situation.

It started this year, when a new bus driver took over her daughter's route, Wnorowski said. The bus started coming 15 to 20 minutes late, she said. So this month Wnorowski called Wake County Schools' southern area transportation office, which operates school buses in her area, to find out why.

"The response I got was, 'It's not your bus driver's fault; the bus has serious mechanical problems,'" Wnorowski said.

She said she then received three to four calls from transportation officials, saying the woman had misspoken. The bus actually is in great condition, Wnorowski said she was told.

Triangle Troubleshooter contacted Bob Snidemiller, Wake County's senior director of transportation. He said that even though Wnorowski's bus had overheated one morning, that's not why it had been picking students up later. Officials pushed the pick-up time back 10 to 15 minutes because the previous driver had been getting students to school too early, Snidemiller said.

"It creates a waiting problem," he said.

He added that the bus has had some minor mechanical problems. After all, it's a 1995 model with 161,000 miles on it, he said.

Buses aren't scheduled to be replaced until they have 200,000 miles on them, he said. This year, 69 buses will be replaced, but not this one. It did get a new radiator.

Even though she has talked to numerous officials, Wnorowski said she was not told that the pick-up time had changed.

"If the bus time had been moved back due to the kids getting to school too early, why weren't the parents notified?" she said. "At the beginning of the school year, we were told it would pick up the kids at my stop at 8:17 [a.m.], and it was consistently on time. It is now anywhere between 8:25 to 8:45. I've heard many other reasons why this bus is consistently late; this is new one."

Wake County has had issues with its school bus safety ratings in the past. On Friday, a bus engine caught fire at Old Stage Road and Ten-Ten Road. There were no injuries.

In 2007, Wake County's school bus fleet had one of the state's worst safety ratings. A state inspection found a variety of problems such as oil leaks, fuel leaks, improper air pressure in tires and inoperative dashboard lights. Wake received a score of 94.02 points -- the third worst in the state. (School bus ratings are like golf scores -- the lower the better.) Wake since has revamped its maintenance process.

This year, its score is 78.96 -- up from 67.59 in 2008 -- according to Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Snidemiller assured Triangle Troubleshooter that the school buses are safe.

"We run over 900 buses every day, so it's a little bit of challenge," he said. "For the most part, everything runs smoothly."

That's not enough assurance for Wnorowski.

"I've just decided I don't know if there is a problem with the bus, so I'm going to be driving her to school," she said.

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