NCDPI alerts all school districts of bus fire risks, orders new inspections

NCDPI alerts all school districts of bus fire risks, orders new inspections

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Channel 9 learned Friday that officials with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction have alerted all school districts in the state about fire risks in certain school buses.

The email message obtained by Channel 9 shows districts what to look for during bus inspections.

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NCDPI ordered new inspections for buses every model year from 1998 to 2003 with Caterpillar engines.

School bus safety has become a key issue after a second school bus in less than a month caught fire earlier this week.

An anonymous source gave Channel 9 an internal memo Thursday morning that laid out what may have caused a school bus to catch fire in October.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders told the public their investigation into the school bus fire on Oct. 19 was "inconclusive."

But an internal CMS transportation memo suggests that investigators knew more than they led parents to believe.

The anonymous source provided Channel 9 with a "Transportation Services Update" that was written Oct. 23, four days after the bus fire forced 16 students to evacuate. The memo affects all buses in addition to the specific make and model involved in the fire.

The internal memo instructs technicians to check the wiring harnesses while inspecting school buses.

“It appears that wires connected to the start may have shorted out on the frame or a bracket holding them, or that the starter itself had a catastrophic failure,” according to the internal memo.

The internal memo also told staff to pay close attention to the bundles of wiring leading to the starters on all buses.

Eyewitness News investigator Paul Boyd presented the internal memo to Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders.

"We're trying to understand why the information in this internal memo was not made available to the public," Boyd asked.

"So this is the first time I'm seeing this. If you'd like to leave it with me I can make a copy and we'll find some answers for you," Renee McCoy, with CMS, said.

After CMS officials learned Channel 9 had obtained the memo, they released it to the public, saying it proved they were working hard behind the scenes to address the problem. But district officials did not explain why they initially told parents their findings were "inconclusive."

Channel 9 searched through our news archives and found a CMS bus fire in 2012 on the same make and model of the two other buses that caught fire. The cause of the 2012 fire pointed to an electrical wiring malfunction.

CMS officials have not said if the district tried to fix those wiring issues on all the buses or if the wiring harness on Bus 188 was inspected or repaired before it burst into flames this week.

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox made a surprise appearance at a school board committee meeting Friday morning, and only Channel 9 was there to ask him questions about the bus investigation.

“For us, we're taking this one day at a time,” Wilcox said. “We're really trying to look now to see if we can get to causality.”

Demetrius Hampton, a former CMS bus technician, told Channel 9 that a change needs to happen in the district's transportation department.

"I want to emphasize that they have some very good people that do care about what they do. I just think the system, how it's designed, needs to be different,” said Hampton, who spent eight years repairing CMS buses and 20 years as a vehicle technician. “I think they need to use their workforce better."

Hampton said good technicians are leaving for better pay.

"Those guys are under a lot of pressure, you know, because they're short-staffed,” he said. "You have a lot of competition. If they can go to a dealership and make $30 an hour, why would they come there and make $18 an hour?”

Wilcox warns a pay increase won't happen overnight.

“You know I can't just rush out and pay one group of employees significantly more when other work related to them might be impacted by that as well,” Wilcox.

CMS highly compensates its leadership. Wilcox earns $280,000 per year in salary. Janet Thomas, who runs CMS transportation is paid $101,000 and chief operating officer Carol Stamper earns $175,000 per year.

“Carol Stamper absolutely has my confidence,” Wilcox said. “Carol's a fine leader. She's smart, talented person. We are going to continue however to work with the team that reports to Carol to make sure they're doing the things that they need to do.”

Right now, eight out of 42 CMS technician jobs remain unfilled.

Hampton believes the shortage may be contributing to problems.

"When you put a bunch of workload on them, then you get mistakes,” Hampton said.

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