NEW ORLEANS — After Mayor LaToya Cantrell promised stronger enforcement of new school bus regulations, police and city permitting agents showed up unannounced at two local charter schools Thursday.
At almost the same moment, NOLA Public Schools announced a new, stronger stance on private school bus operators driving public school children in buses that have not passed inspection.
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a newsletter post to parents that he has asked every school to immediately verify with its school bus contractor that its buses and drivers meet the city's inspection standards.
"It is unacceptable that some buses transporting students have yet to pass the city’s new inspection process," Lewis said. "This practice is going to end."
NOLA Public Schools directed all 45 charter management organizations it governs to report on the compliance of their contracted buses by the end of Friday.
Entering the winter holiday break, only 60 percent of school buses on the road had passed the New Orleans city inspection process.
If every contracted bus isn't up to new regulations approved by the City Council last February, Lewis said, schools will be required to submit a corrective action plan by Feb. 13.
All privately operated public school buses, even those that have already passed an inspection this school year, will have to be reinspected in accordance with the city code by Feb. 28. There are approximately 700 buses serving New Orleans' 82 public charter schools.
In his letter Thursday, Lewis cited unspecified "increased accountability actions" for schools that do not comply by the deadline.
This bolder stance from the school district follows several high-profile incidents exposed by WWL-TV's "Taken for a Ride" series and pleas from Cantrell and other city officials to help the city enforce the rules.
For example, a school bus left Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary students unattended on the side of the road after a fender-bender and left the scene. And just last month, a Hammond's Transportation bus that never passed its city inspection was being driven by a convicted felon who had been denied a license when it flipped on the Interstate-10 High Rise, sending 15 James Singleton Charter School students to the hospital.
New Orleans city leaders have mandated a range of measures, from safety inspections to background checks, but the officials in charge of the inspection process have been frustrated by the lack of compliance by bus companies and a lack of enforcement support from schools and the Orleans Parish School Board, now known as NOLA Public Schools.
City Safety and Permits Director Zach Smith said the city can cite buses and drivers for violations, but pulling buses off the road is difficult without disrupting children's education.
After the High Rise accident, Smith singled out Hammond's for only having 40 percent of its buses pass inspections. He also noted that two Hammond's drivers, Frederick Victoran and Chad Rodney, were caught driving school buses in the last two months after the city rejected their permit applications for having criminal convictions in the last five years.
The city can only deny drivers permits if they have been convicted of certain violent crimes, drug felonies or impaired driving within the past five years.
Hammond's fared much better during Thursday's spot inspections, with 12 of 13 buses at KIPP Renaissance High at Frederick Douglass showing they had the proper permits. One bus did not have a brake tag and had not passed its inspection, Smith said. Two buses did not have working safety arms, he said.
Curtis Elmore, a spokesman for KIPP New Orleans Schools, said the large charter operator is involved in efforts to get full compliance from its two bus vendors, Hammond's and A&S Transportation.
“We have communicated to all of our transportation vendors that any school bus that transports our students should have all valid and up-to-date inspection documentation," Elmore said. "We will continue to hold all of our vendors accountable and ensure that all measures are taken to keep our students safe.”
City inspectors also performed surprise inspections at Bethune, but a report of their findings was not available yet Thursday evening.
Smith said he welcomed the help from NOLA Public Schools and hoped it would lead to 100 percent compliance with new city ordinances by the end of February.
"We jumped into the school bus regulation field, which we had never been in, because too many people were sitting on the side," he said of the city's unorthodox decision to fill the void and regulate school buses under its for-hire vehicle permitting process. "The mayor has been taking action, she has us taking action, and we welcome anyone else to kind of get off the sidelines and jump into this fight with us."
Lewis said he planned to form a working group to identify "long-term solutions" for bus safety by the end of January.
The city also wasn't able to prevent operators who were forced to shut down because of fraudulent insurance documents to pop back up under a different company.
Smith said he can do nothing to prevent the former officials of bus company Scholars First from being involved with a new company contracted with two New Orleans schools, EMS Transportation, even after an Eyewitness News investigation led to the former company's shuttering.