NEW ORLEANS — A controversial school bus accident this week is calling more attention to the problems New Orleans is having controlling nearly 700 privately operated school buses that serve its all-charter public school system.
A school bus with six students from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary collided with a gray car at about 5:30 p.m. Monday at the intersection of North Broad and D’Abadie streets near the Fairgrounds.
The car spun around and the bus suffered bumper damage, but no injuries were reported. It was what happened next that had 10-year-old Anthony Guichard and his fellow Bethune students scared.
The bus driver “pulled over and then came off the bus when we were still on the bus, but then the bus started rolling because he didn’t put it in park,” Anthony said. “He came back on, put it in park and told us to get off. He got back on the bus and left.”
Anthony said he was left on the side of busy North Broad Street with another 10-year-old and an 11-year-old, nearly 3 miles from his Gentilly home. Luckily, about 15 to 20 neighbors came outside when they heard the crash and stayed with the kids until their parents could come pick them up.
“The many witnesses out here saw the bus leave,” said one neighbor, Morgan Clevenger, who called police. “There’s no way to know why he left. But we do know that leaving children on the side of the road is, you know, it’s not a good thing.”
The bus had a temporary license plate and no markings showing who owns it, which are required by new city regulations. Those new rules were imposed early this year, in part as a result of WWL-TV’s “Taken for a Ride” investigation that found safety violations and falsified insurance on many private school buses that serve charter schools.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office confirmed that the bus involved in the accident has not received a new for-hire vehicle license with the city and has not had a safety inspection, both of which are required for all school buses under the new rules.
Bethune Charter's school bus vendor, BCH Services Group, had already applied for those vehicle licenses but is not scheduled for certification until Sept. 27, Cantrell spokeswoman LaTonya Norton said.
Cantrell’s Safety & Permits director, Zach Smith, sent a letter Wednesday to the Orleans Parish School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, appealing for their help in enforcing inspection requirements.
“The City of New Orleans specifically asks that OPSB and/or BESE require that all schools in Orleans Parish provide written confirmation that all buses with which the school contracts for bus service have passed inspection,” Smith’s letter says.
Even after pushing back the deadline for school bus inspections twice – from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1 and then to Sept. 15 – only a third of the 667 licensed buses have been inspected, and only 125 – fewer than 1 in 5 buses – have passed an inspection, according to Smith.
The city is caught in a catch-22 because it doesn’t have direct authority over the schools and it doesn’t want to disrupt children’s schooling by forcing hundreds of buses off the road.
Asked what OPSB can do under its administrative arm, NOLA Public Schools, safety officer Ulyses Collins touted the school district’s partnership with City Hall, but said enforcement is the city’s responsibility. He preferred to focus on the positives in the new certification process.
“All buses have not been inspected, but we’re definitely in a better place than we were on last year, given that the city has issued 700 certificates to buses which means that they have insurance and registration on file,” Collins said. “Also, 700 drivers have passed the federal background checks, which is also a big win for the city, the schools and our families.”
But the city doesn’t have those documents on file for BCH, leaving parents and school officials to wonder who the driver was and what’s being done to deal with Monday’s incident.
Anthony’s mother, Lisa Guichard, said she was irate when Anthony called her using Clevenger’s cell phone to say the bus driver had left him there.
“He is now your responsibility until he gets home to me, so when you left him, that’s like child neglect,” she said. “I gave you my son, you said you would take care of him, he gets off the bus, you leave him?”
Guichard said she called BCH owner Bobby Hardrick Jr. to complain, and he was sympathetic.
“He said that it was ridiculous that he had left the scene,” she said. “It was ridiculous that the kids were left here by themselves. He said, ‘I’m a parent. I would not have known what to do to think my child is out there by themselves.’”
But when WWL-TV spoke to Hardrick on Wednesday, he said the bus company never left the children unattended.
“The driver didn’t leave the scene. He just pulled around the corner to get out of traffic,” Hardrick said.
But another neighbor, Cedric Snow, disputed that. Snow said he moved his car that was parked near the accident and when he did, he saw the bus turn on the next side street, Onzaga Street, and said it “just sped off.”
NOPD spokesman Aaron Looney said a police unit arrived at 5:42 p.m., seven minutes after Clevenger’s 9-1-1 call where she said the bus was leaving. The police incident report says both the school bus and the gray car were gone when the officer arrived.
The bus wasn’t actually a BCH bus, but one operated by a subcontractor, Cage Transportation. The owner of that firm, Roy Cage, said he was driving another bus route and came over to the scene when he heard about the accident. He said he arrived around 6:05 p.m.
That’s 30 minutes after Clevenger reported the bus leaving, and 23 minutes after the police arrived. But Cage insisted the bus was just around the corner when he got there, still exchanging information with the driver of the other car.
Clevenger said that even if that’s true, she and other neighbors were left to care for the kids without any bus company representative in sight. And she questions why Cage, who spoke with police when he arrived, wouldn’t have had his employee speak with the officer if he had still been there.
Cage said his driver didn’t do anything wrong. He said Broad and D’Abedie was his last stop and the driver believed all of the students were with their families. Asked about Anthony Guichard and the two others who were still far from their stops, Cage said the school had placed them on the wrong bus.
Hardrick and Cage said the driver was fired anyway, simply for getting in an accident, even though they said it was the other motorist’s fault.
“Any accident, whether right or wrong, we let them go,” Cage said.
Asked if that policy could cause drivers to flee an accident to avoid being fired, Cage said no, and that didn’t happen in this case.
Bethune’s operations manager, Armand Devezin, initially told WWL-TV on Tuesday that the school believed the bus driver had left the kids unattended, but on Wednesday, Devezin said he had accepted Cage’s claim that the driver was still on the scene when Cage arrived.
NOLA Public Schools’ Collins took a similar position.
“We have been in constant communication with the impacted school, NOPD and the transportation company, and, as reported to us, the bus driver did not actually leave the scene until the owner of the company did arrive at the location,” Collins said.
NOLA Public Schools says it's setting up meetings with city officials, school leaders and bus companies to help "navigate the city's new process for inspections."
Hardrick said he has been scrambling to get his buses certified because his company was hired suddenly by Bethune Charter almost a month into the new school year. Bethune’s original bus vendor, Kids 1st Transportation, stopped operating at four New Orleans charter schools in late August.
Cheron Brylski, a spokesperson for three of the four schools, including Bethune, said Kids 1st suddenly left those schools in the lurch on Aug. 23, but Kids 1st owner Rory Askin told WWL-TV it should not have been a surprise to the schools.
Askin said he was not getting paid timely, had alerted schools months ago that he would be ceasing service Sept. 1 and was asked by the schools to stop driving for them on Aug. 23.