A week after NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. gave schools a February deadline to pass city-required school bus inspections, his office reports 86 percent of school buses have met the mark. That’s up from roughly 60 percent prior to the district’s winter break.
But more than a dozen charter groups are still transporting students on at least one bus that has not passed inspection. The district issued warnings to those organizations this week.
“This is critical progress, but we can’t be satisfied until 100% of the fleet is meeting standards,” Lewis wrote in an emailed newsletter Wednesday morning. “Operators have been informed they have until February 13th to have all their buses pass inspection.”
Based on data the district demanded from schools last week, 13 organizations had at least one bus in their fleets that had not passed inspection and was being used to transport students. They all received a so-called “notice of non-compliance level 1,” the district’s lowest level warning.
Those organizations are Sophie B. Wright Charter School, Robert Russa Moton Charter School, IDEA Oscar Dunn, Elan Academy, InspireNOLA, Friends of King Schools, Warren Easton Charter High School, Mary D. Coghill Charter School, Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, Foundation Prep, ReNew Schools, Collegiate Academies and the New Beginnings Schools Foundation.
“Based on the data collected from schools, 647 total buses are available to provide services for schools across the district,” an emailed statement attributed to the district stated. “Of those 647 total buses, 557 have passed inspection, or 86%.”
The ramped up enforcement comes nearly a month after a school bus carrying students overturned on the interstate and sent several students to the hospital. That bus had not passed a city inspection according to WWLTV, and the driver was also found to be ineligible to operate the vehicle. The students were discharged from the hospital the same day, Lewis said at a December meeting.
After the crash, Lewis said he directed his team to consider their options, including “allowing only the highest quality operators to service our students.”
That would be a major departure from the city’s decentralized school model, which places charter schools in charge of finding and contracting with bus companies. Some charters own and manage their own fleets.
School bus operation in the city has not been without controversy lately. Last year, WWL-TV uncovered numerous violations in the city from a company with falsified insurance certificates. Recently, they found the old leadership from that company operating a bus company under a new name.
The New Orleans City Council, rather than the district, was the first to take the reins on school bus safety. After a report revealed egregious safety issues, such as emergency exits bolted shut, the council passed an ordinance last February requiring all school buses to pass a city inspection and school bus drivers to meet certain requirements.
But the means of enforcement are complicated — the city can ticket buses and the district can warn schools, but most schools hire private bus companies to transport students. A handful of schools manage their own fleet of buses.
The inspection rollout hasn’t exactly been smooth. Over the summer, companies struggled to get buses inspected and complained about additional costs for a reinspection if a bus failed the first time around.
The city and district offered multiple extensions as they tried to work together to get buses inspected. But the process dragged on for months.
In September, the city demanded the district require schools to provide written confirmation to the city. “To date, only 222 out of 667 buses with [certificate of public necessity and convenience] licenses have been inspected. Only 125 of the 222 inspected buses have passed, meaning that 542 school buses have either not been inspected or have failed inspection.”
Through the fall months, the district says it tried to work with city leaders.
In an emailed newsletter statement last week, Lewis wrote “it is unacceptable that some buses transporting students have yet to pass the city’s new inspection process. This practice is going to end.”
The schools that received warning letters this week must submit a corrective action plan to the district outlining a path to compliance by Feb. 13.
“If schools don’t comply, increased accountability actions will be taken,” Lewis wrote last week.