Miscommunication led school administrators to falsely report buses passed inspection

Four Westbrook school buses were recently taken out of service, but the School Department didn't know due to miscommunication and a lack of understanding the inspection reports. 

WESTBROOK — Administrators say information about school bus defects was not given to the School Committee because they were unaware state police ordered the buses sidelined.

Several circumstances led them to believe the buses passed a surprise state compliance check on Dec. 27, 2017, the school officials said. The inspection was a follow-up to a safety check last June, when six school buses failed and were pulled from the road.

They said factors that contributed to the School Department being unaware four buses were supposed to be temporarily garaged included miscommunication between the department’s mechanic and state inspectors; a failure to understand how to read inspection reports, and inconsistencies in how state inspectors complete the reports.

Despite the confusion, all four buses were repaired before going back on the road and no children were ever in danger. The inspection occurring during winter break, so the mechanic, Sid Shane, had time to complete the repairs the same day of the inspection.

Shane said he was aware the buses had defects, but didn’t know they were problems that would prompt an “out-of-service” designation.

“I asked if there was anything that needed to come off the road and (the inspectors) said there were just some that needed attention,” Shane said Jan. 26.

In a Jan. 8 letter to Superintendent of Schools Peter Lancia, which was given to the School Committee, Director of Operations Dean Flanagin said “all buses passed with no required repairs.”

School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said he doesn’t feel deceived by Flanagin’s wording and that the School Committee generally doesn’t want information about run-of-the-mill defects.

“I can’t blame (Flanagin or Lancia) for providing misinformation, if that’s the information they were given,” he said. “They’re just going to report what they’ve been told.”

School Committee member Veronica Bates said she was “led to believe everything passed just fine” and she didn’t know any buses were sidelined. She said she only wants to know about defects if they put children in danger.

According to school bus inspection reports obtained by the American Journal from the Maine State Police, some buses had sticking brakes, brakes that were out of adjustment, and leaking exhaust.

Bates said she was “very skeptical” and wanted to “see it for myself.”

Lancia said Flanagin didn’t know those problems were official “out-of-service defects” and thought they were merely suggested repairs, hence Flanigan’s use of the phrase “no required repairs.”

“We knew that there were some repairs needed, but they were maintenance,” Lancia said. “They weren’t required.”

The repairs were required, however, according to state police inspectors. Four buses weren’t allowed back on the road until they were fixed, although the department said the buses were repaired before they were operated again.

Following a Jan. 18 report in the American Journal stating that four buses had been taken out of service, Flanagin and Lancia said they had received different information from the state police. A Freedom of Access Act request revealed the state and the School Department had identical forms stating that four buses were ordered out of service.

Lt. Bruce Scott of the Maine State Police Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit said Flanagin, who has been the School Department director of operations for six years, didn’t properly read the reports.

“He didn’t understand the forms,” Scott said Jan. 22. “If you go through these real quick, I could understand how he could think he got a glowing score here.”

Flanagin said he was confused because of the way inspectors filled out the forms.

None of the 18 reports completed during the Dec. 27 inspection had appropriate boxes checked to indicate four buses had to be taken out of service. Comments on the bottom of four sheets, though, on a line labeled “out of service defects,” showed that the buses had to come off the road until repairs were made.

Additionally, most of the buses had some minor defects or violations, such as expired fire extinguishers. Only four of the 18 buses inspected on Dec. 27 completely passed. The district has 26 buses in total, but some were offsite the day of the inspection and others wouldn’t start due to cold weather.

Scott conceded inspectors should fill out every section of the form, although they aren’t required to. Either way, he said, inspectors always tell bus mechanics about issues that require immediate repairs.

According to an inspector who was present Dec. 27, Shane was at the inspection and was told that four buses were being taken out of service. Shane agreed he was present, but said he wasn’t given that information.

Lancia said even if inspectors did tell Shane, they should have also put the notice in writing. “We can’t just rely on verbal reports,” he said.

“I think the reports are somewhat confusing,” he continued, after it was pointed out that all four buses taken off the road had corresponding reports with written comments saying they were being ordered out of service.

Flanagin said Shane told him the buses needed some repairs, which he performed the same day. Flanagin said he knows Shane is doing his job properly and he doesn’t fault him for not knowing the buses should have been out of service.

“He’s very meticulous about fixing things before they go back on the road, whether they’re required or not,” Flanagin said. “In his defense, he had them back in service before they (were used) again.”

Regardless of whether the out-of-service buses were repaired right away, they didn’t pass the state’s inspection. Scott said administrators should have been made aware of this.

“Administrators are responsible for the work of their subordinates and they need to own it,” he said. “They should be aware and better versed.”

Lancia agreed, saying, “the more information, the better. If there’s an issue we should know.”

Another compliance check will take place in the spring. Scott said he’ll be sure to have his inspectors better explain their reports and “be sure we’re using common language.”

Lancia agreed there must be better communication between inspectors and the mechanic, as well as internally in the School Department.

“This has been a whole lesson in being clear and making sure everyone understands all aspects,” he said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Four Westbrook school buses were recently taken out of service, but the School Department didn’t know due to miscommunication and a lack of understanding the inspection reports.

The Westbrook school superintendent said the department’s new bus mechanic, Sid Shane, wasn’t told by state inspectors that four buses were being taken out of service.