NEW ORLEANS — With less than a week before New Orleans public schools open the 2021-2022 year, only 16 percent of nearly 700 independently operated school buses have cleared the city’s safety inspection and licensing requirements, city records show.
Even though the city government has no control over schools, the Cantrell administration stepped in late in 2018 after identifying what one former official called a “Wild Wild West of buses.”
The city passed a new ordinance in February 2019 placing school bus safety inspections and permits under the Ground Transportation Bureau. Ever since then, WWL-TV has tracked the licenses called CPNCs granted to each school bus.
As of this Tuesday, 695 school buses have applied for CPNCs. Only 110 of them had been approved for a CPNC.
That leaves almost 85 percent of the city's school buses without a proper license to operate in the city. Of those, the city said 381 buses had their applications under review by Tuesday.
That leaves 204 buses -- 30 percent of the total -- that still needed to be inspected and provide the required paperwork to the Ground Transportation Bureau to even start the review process.
The issue is more than just paperwork, though. Starting in late 2018, WWL-TV’s “Taken for a Ride” investigation found dozens of small companies hired by the city’s charter schools were operating unsafe school buses, employing uncertified drivers and, at times, using uninsured buses to transport public schoolchildren in New Orleans.
The investigation found, among other things, a school bus company falsifying insurance records. The owner of Scholars First, Jeramy Jackson, and insurance agent Michael Simon, who also started a different bus company called EMS Transportation, were arrested in March 2021 based on the WWL-TV findings and charged with 23 and nine counts of computer fraud, respectively. The charges are pending for both in Jefferson Parish.
In December 2019, the station discovered that a school bus driver who was a convicted felon and had been denied a city permit was driving an unpermitted school bus when it flipped on the Interstate 10 high rise bridge over the Industrial Canal, injuring several children.
The pandemic that forced schools into virtual learning in March 2020 meant that many school bus fleets didn't operate for most of last school year.
But even before COVID hit, some bus companies were slow to get inspections done.
In the past, the city's former Ground Transportation Bureau director, Wes Pfeiffer, would run surprise inspections of school buses as they arrived at a school and would talk to WWL-TV about what problems his inspectors were finding.
In 2019, for example, he talked about mechanical issues with the bus safety arms and more buses that lacked proper insurance or registration documents.
But Pfeiffer left City Hall last year, and a city spokesperson says the bureau is going through yet another leadership change just as a new school year begins. It was also recently moved from the Department of Safety and Permits to the Department of Public Works.
Spokesperson LaTonya Norton said Ground Transportation Bureau staff is working overtime to process the school bus applications and will continue enforcement efforts despite the leadership and organizational changes.
Separately, NOLA Public Schools requires each charter operator to provide information about its transportation contracts, school buses and drivers. Spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the school district gets reports from the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau to make sure the schools are providing accurate permit and inspection information for all their buses.