CRYSTAL LAKE – Nineteen buses owned and operated by Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 and Community High School District 155 failed their most recent safety inspections by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The findings come months after the busing service’s lead mechanic admitted to hiding 10 buses before the surprise inspections, and a month after the District 47 board approved spending $1.4 million to buy 18 new buses, which is the most it would buy in several years.
Several officials from both districts and the busing service declined to comment about the matter.
Eight of the 19 buses that failed inspections had violations serious enough that IDOT ordered the buses temporarily be put out of service until repairs were made. For the 11 others that failed, IDOT issued warnings that required the districts’ joint busing service to correct the violations within 30 days.
IDOT inspected 85 buses in the districts’ shared fleet in mid-October, the results of which were obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The eight buses that were put out of service violated the state’s administrative code for school buses. Some of the problems found by state inspectors included:
• A leaking fuel tank on one bus, three buses with exhaust leaks and one with an unsecured fire exit.
• Two buses that did not meet the state requirement for tire tread depth on school buses. IDOT requires 1/8th of an inch of tire tread depth on the front tires of a bus and 1/16th of an inch of tire tread depth on the rear tires. One bus had 3/32nds of an inch of tire tread depth on its right front tire, while another had 1/16th of an inch of tire tread depth on the right front tire.
• The lifts on two special education buses operated with the doors closed, which is a violation of the state’s administrative code for special education school buses.
IDOT handed down the 11 warnings to the Transportation Joint Agreement for violations such as having obstructions in windows, a leaking shock, missing labels or letters, and broken LED lights in stop arms and turn signals. Of the 19 buses that had violations, nine were flagged for nonworking LED lights.
Transportation and maintenance of District 47 and 155 buses is overseen by staff at the Transportation Joint Agreement, located at 1204 S. McHenry Ave. on the Crystal Lake South High School campus. TJA has a fleet of 128 buses.
IDOT can show up at a school district’s bus depot at any time for a surprise inspection. This is the type of inspection that was done in October on TJA buses.
On Oct. 17, the date of the IDOT inspections, TJA’s shop foreman hid 10 buses to avoid those inspections, according to an email obtained by the Northwest Herald from an IDOT investigator to state compliance officials.
The email, written by investigator Carl Ballinger and sent to IDOT Bureau of Investigation and Compliance Vehicle Inspection Unit employees Dan Thompson and Grant White, said that TJA shop foreman Tim Oppenhagen admitted to hiding 10 buses from IDOT inspectors Oct. 17.
When asked, Oppenhagen told Ballinger he did not know why he did it, but after further discussion between the two, Oppenhagen showed Ballinger the hidden buses and gave various reasons why he hid each. Ballinger said all issues Oppenhagen described were, “at best, 30-day warnings. There was only one issue that would have been an out of service on one bus,”
according to the email.
After that exchange, Ballinger met with TJA director of transportation Penny Fleming and assistant director Collin McCormick. Both told Ballinger that they did not know about, nor did they encourage, the hiding of buses, according to the email.
After learning of the incident, McCormick contacted the superintendents of both Districts 47 and 155. McCormick then ordered the buses to be sent to a local test station for inspections to ensure that they were safe, according to the email.
The results of those inspections, and whether the hidden buses were included in the Oct. 17 inspection records provided by IDOT, is unclear.
Reached Tuesday at the TJA bus depot via phone, Oppenhagen declined to comment, saying, “You’ll have to talk to my supervisor.”
Neither Fleming nor McCormick returned calls regarding the matter last week. Fleming emailed a statement that said, “TJA is committed to student safety and continues to follow Illinois Department of Transportation bus inspection protocol and procedures. We addressed this matter with a statement in October and have no new information to share at this time.”
District 47’s response in October was that an employee made an error in judgment, but officials declined to answer additional questions about what happened at the time.
“Unbeknownst to TJA directors, buses were removed from the lot following an error in judgment by a TJA employee,” a spokesperson wrote in October in an emailed response to questions from the Northwest Herald. “The buses were tested and have passed the inspection. This is a personnel matter that is being dealt with.”
When asked whether Oppenhagen was disciplined, a District 47 spokesperson said the district does not comment on personnel matters.
All school buses are required to undergo inspections by local, state-certified inspection stations every six months or 10,000 miles, whichever comes first. Before that, the district’s transportation shop is supposed to inspect the buses.
TJA has its buses inspected at M & A Precision Truck & Equipment in Lake in the Hills.
“They inspect it before we even inspect it,” M & A President Bill Hinde said of TJA.
In addition to visual and hands-on checks, M & A has a $175,000 diagnostic machine that tests brakes and reads the stopping ability of each wheel. IDOT has an extensive list of things the service stations have to check. Hinde said the whole process of inspecting a bus takes 20 to 30 minutes at his shop.
Hinde said he heard about TJA failing IDOT inspections in October, but TJA has not contacted him regarding it. He said M & A fails 15 percent to 20 percent of the buses that come through for an inspection, but what happens after that in terms of repairs is out of the inspection station’s control.
Hinde said it’s important to consider the reasons why IDOT might fail a bus. A failed inspection doesn’t mean a wheel is going to fall off, he said, but minor things can add up.
“I wouldn’t say it’s alarming,” Hinde said of the rate at which TJA buses fail IDOT inspections. “It depends what the buses are failed for. Windows might be halfway down, some kid might have marked off some lettering – you gotta weigh out what the violations were.”
Hinde said busing companies might want to consider going back to the traditional style of lights because when one of the many LED lights goes out in a modern light fixture, it can be a violation, even though the rest of the bulbs work.
But he said a bus never should have next-to-zero tread on the tires.
How TJA compares with other districts
McHenry School Districts 15 and 156 transportation director Jeff Sherman said it has been at least five years since IDOT stopped by his shop for a surprise inspection, but he expects that the 72 buses he oversees wouldn’t fail many inspections.
That’s in part because the buses are leased, and none is older than 5 years, Sherman said. Not only that, but they have an extended warranty that allows the districts to get anything from a cracked window to a broken starter replaced very easily.
“We probably pay extra to lease our buses [compared with other districts],” Sherman said, noting that the phasing out of buses more than 5 years old keeps problems with their fleet at a minimum.
Huntley School District 158 owns and operates 108 buses, plus two activity buses. Generally, the district budgets for 10 new buses a year. The fleet has an average age of 7 years, and the district tries to get 10 to 12 years and 100,000 to 120,000 miles out of a bus.
The last surprise inspection of District 158 buses by IDOT was four years ago, district spokesman Dan Armstrong said. One of the district’s then-total of 104 buses failed the inspection, Armstrong said. Before that, one District 158 bus was put out of service in 2010 after an IDOT inspection, according to records.
In January, the District 47 board approved the purchase of 18 new 71-passenger buses for a total cost of $1,443,014. Bus equipment costs are shared by both District 47 and 155.
“Trading buses to maintain a fleet is a cost-effective, common practice that TJA has engaged in over the past 25 years to ensure the safety and reliability of its buses,” Fleming said in a January statement after the board approved the purchase. “We plan ahead for budgetary purposes. Being able to trade some buses this year and more next year allows us to maintain a healthy rotation of our fleet and obtain a significant discount.”
The District 47 board’s policy allows TJA to trade in up to 12 buses annually, district spokeswoman Denise Barr said.
She said Tuesday that the 18-bus purchase is not related to IDOT inspection results.
During the 2015-16 school year, the districts brought in six new buses. In 2016-17, 11 new buses were approved. In 2017-18, six buses were brought in at the beginning of the year, and six more are to come. In 2018-19, there will be 12 new buses.
“To reduce the average age of our bus fleet, last year the TJA advisory board (composed of representatives from both school districts), recommended the purchase of up to 12 buses annually (dependent on budget constraints),” Barr said in an email.
The TJA advisory board recommended buying 18 new buses this year to fulfill the fleet purchase for the current school year and 2018-19, Barr said. In doing so, the districts got a loyalty discount of $2,000 a bus, a $36,000 savings, from International bus company.
The buses being traded in are 12 to 14 years old, with mileage ranging between 136,000 and 190,000.
District 155 spokeswoman Shannon Podzimek and board President Adam Guss did not respond to requests for comment. A message for District 155 Superintendent Steve Olson left on his assistant’s voicemail was not returned. Efforts to speak with District 47 board President Rob Fetzner were unsuccessful.
The district said in January that none of the buses being traded in had failed inspections or were deemed unsafe.
School District 47/155 bus violations
Eight School District 47/155 buses were ordered out of service after failed IDOT inspections in October for various violations.
• Bus 291: lift operates with door closed; missing vehicle length
• Bus 314: right front tire tread depth less than minimum; lift operates with door closed
• Bus 243: exhaust leak at turbo
• Bus 240: unsecured fire exit, wipers; fogged service door glass
• Bus 236: exhaust leak; stop arm panel LEDs; loose seat bottoms
• Bus 269: exhaust leak; loose seat bottoms
• Bus 332: right front tire tread depth less than minimum; stairwell light out
• Bus 349: fuel tank leak; rear left turn signal LED
Source: IDOT safety inspection records