PORTLAND, Ore. - How safe will your children be when they step on a school bus in a few weeks?
Maybe not as safe as you think.
A far-reaching search of public documents, and interviews with current and former officials involved in school bus safety in Oregon, reveal everything from buses that are in bad condition to falsified inspection records.
Ultimately, it is the certified inspectors from the school district and state who are responsible for keeping buses safe. It's a system that has only been in place since 2007.
The On Your Side Investigators requested three years worth of school bus inspections from our largest local districts. The documents reveal problems ranging from expired fire extinguishers and loose seats to exhaust systems that were starting to rot.
In nearly every school district that inspectors visited in the past three years, they found buses in such bad shape that the vehicles are immediately taken out of service - 19 in Portland, 12 in Canby, 11 in Gresham and 9 in Tigard-Tualatin (just to name a few). How far does the state's list go? We wish we could tell you, but what our investigation exposed is that Oregon has no way of knowing for sure.
"In our state, we have two people that are assigned to inspect the school buses for 196 districts," said Steven Huillet, former director of pupil transportation for the Oregon Department of Education. "So when we go into a district, we try to hit 20 percent of those vehicles and do the inspection on them."
That means 80 percent of Oregon's school buses are not checked out by the state. And with only two state inspectors, they can only make it to each district once every six years.
That never satisfied Huillet, who is nationally recognized for his safety expertise. He retired last year, but said he left unfinished business when it comes to Oregon's school buses.
"Would I like to see us doing something more in Oregon? Absolutely," he said. "I think the six years could be improved. We had talked and we would have liked to have it moved to three to five years."
Huillet said school districts are required to send in their own certification reports once a year. The reports are supposed to detail the district's own comprehensive bus inspections and maintenance records. The technicians that conduct district-level inspections must first pass a test, but the testing process is not very rigorous.
"It is an open book test," Huillet said. "We do make it that way. They have to pass at 80 percent to get their certification."
Even with an open book test, Huillet said he found issues.
"I've had to go after and revoke three school bus certifications," he said. "I personally went out and did the inspection on the vehicles and went through the paperwork. And I found irregularities in the paperwork that led me to believe that the paperwork was being done, but the actual inspection was not."
Rob Saxton, Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction, told us there is nothing more important than student safety. We asked him how much concern he has that only 20 percent of the fleets are inspected.
"We want to make sure we use our resources as well as we can around transportation," he said. "We think this gives us a really good idea of what the buses look like in a random sample."
We also asked about the open book test.
"Well, we don't want it to be a secret what it is we should be looking for in our buses," Saxton said. "A lot of times, having that spelled out clearly for you and knowing what that is is the best way to get that."
And what about the six-year time frame for state inspections?
"We have not had any kind of discussion about that," Saxton said. "If we had the resources to do that, that would be great. But it isn't something we've discussed or something we've put on the table at this point, just to be straight up."
Saxton repeatedly insisted that the state has a history of success in keeping kids safe and making sure the 3,700 school buses on the roads are working the way they are intended.
In comparison, Washington state takes a very different approach. The Washington State Patrol inspects every school bus ever year, with additional surprise inspections on 25 percent of the fleet.
Listed below are the bus inspection reports for Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties given to us by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). They are presented here exactly as they came to us. We requested reports from district-level inspectors from 2010 onward.
The Oregon Dept. of Education began inspecting buses in 2007. As you can see from the reports below, the ODE has not been able to inspect any district’s buses more than once in the past five years. Former ODE Director of Pupil Transportation Steven Huillet said this is due to a lack of staffing.