Ron French / The Detroit News: Lansing -- State budget cuts are forcing some school districts to decide if they'll stop running buses as soon as Nov. 2, when the legally required Michigan State Police inspection program ends.
Michigan State Police informed school administrators by letter this week that all 11 state school bus inspectors will be laid off as of Oct. 31. Without certification from inspectors, school districts cannot legally operate buses.
The letter advised districts with school buses due for certification to seek the advice of their attorneys. Buses that have been inspected can be operated until their next inspection a year later. "Where does that leave school districts?" said Jackie Washegesic, director of transportation for South Haven Public Schools, who attended a brainstorming session Wednesday with Michigan State Police and Department of Education officials. "We've been put in a place where we have to decide between the liability of violating a law, and the responsibility of transporting children to school."
The law may be amended quickly to make bus inspections voluntary, said Rep. Richard LeBlanc, D-Westland.
"It's not a good thing, but it's a budget reality," LeBlanc said. "I'm not sure there are viable alternatives."
The Michigan State Police Motor Carrier Division is responsible for inspecting and certifying the safety of the state's 17,544 school buses each year. The funding for the program is part of the K-12 school aid budget. That budget, approved by the Legislature without money for the inspections and signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm last week, eliminated funding for the $1.4 million program.
The inspectors received layoff notices last Friday, said Capt. Robert Powers, commanding officer of the motor carrier division.
"We have not received funding to continue the inspection program after Oct. 1," Powers said. "All I've been able to tell (school districts) is even though we are mandated by state law to inspect school buses, without funding, we're unable to do so after October."
After that, school districts will be in a Catch-22. Certification is required from the State Police to operate buses, but the MSP won't do inspections.
Even newly purchased school buses can't be turned over to districts without an initial inspection.
"It puts schools in a liability situation," said Karen Losch, executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. "I have some school districts meeting with their school boards to decide what to do."
Novi Community School District operates 29 buses driving 420,000 miles a year. Gail Credit, assistant superintendent for business operations at Novi, said she is confident in the safety of the district's buses, but she is concerned schools will be stuck with another unfunded mandate.
"I am concerned this will fall back on us," Credit said. "We have many mandates that are not funded."
Dennis Gregory, manager of operations for Southfield Public Schools, said he believes the State Police are required to inspect buses whether the inspections are funded or not. "It's a law," Gregory said. "They have to find the money somewhere."
Cutting out school bus inspections "really does point to the economic distress we're in," LeBlanc said. "It's $1.4 million; that's almost insignificant in a $40 billion budget, but the money simply is not there."
That would be a shame, Southfield's Gregory said. "We will continue to service our buses in Southfield to make sure they are the safest buses on the road. But ... it was a benefit to everybody that a third party did inspections. We're talking about the safety of our children."
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