School bus safety: Are you getting your money's worth?

MILWAUKEE - What's the price of student safety? Public records show multi-million dollar contracts with school bus companies that have histories of complaints and safety violations.

The FOX6 Investigators dug into how Milwaukee Public Schools and Racine Unified School District make decisions about school bus contracts and hold companies accountable.

"The cream rises to the top"

Public records show Milwaukee Public Schools spent nearly $60 million on busing in 2017, contracting with ten different companies.

"It drives down prices, and I think it creates a leverage point for the district when contractors may struggle," MPS Senior Director of Business and Transportation David Solik-Fifarek said.

MPS uses a formula to determine which bus companies get the contracts. Solik-Fifarek says price is 75 percent. The remaining 25 percent is called "evaluation," with categories like inspections, on-time performance, bus behavior management, contractor operations, compliance audits, and surveys.

"The cream rises to the top, essentially," Solik-Fifarek said. "Over time, the better performers will get a larger portion of the market share."

Lakeside Bus Company

The largest share of Milwaukee Public Schools' busing goes to Lakeside Bus Company; the district paid more than $13 million in 2017. That same year, state inspections show Lakeside had the highest rate of school bus defects in Southeast Wisconsin.

Lakeside is also consistently the subject of most busing complaints parents call in to FOX6.

"Are they considered one of the better performers?" FOX6 Investigator Amanda St. Hilaire asked Solik-Fifarek.

"I think, over time, it is a product of improvements," Solik-Fifarek said.

MPS only looks at inspections for MPS school buses, not for the bus company as a whole. Milwaukee Public School records show more than 90 percent of Lakeside buses passing inspection, even though State Patrol took one out of every five Lakeside buses off Southeast Wisconsin roads in 2017 for safety violations.

State Patrol does not always write down which bus inspections go with which school district, so FOX6 cannot independently verify Lakeside's rate of defects for Milwaukee Public Schools.

On-time performance

MPS uses GPS monitoring in school buses to track on-time performance.

"Route 234 is supposed to be making the stop at 24th and Tripoli at 6:47," Solik-Fifarek said as he demonstrated the technology. "We'll see that the bus actually made that stop at 6:49. So it was two minutes late. But then it waited for two minutes and 39 seconds."

"We certainly want to make sure if the student is walking down the block, that the bus is not pulling off," Solik-Fifarek added. "That they are, in fact, waiting for the student .But that does have a little bit of a domino effect."

Racine Unified School District

A spokesperson for Racine Unified School District declined an on-camera interview. Public records show the district pays more than $7.7 million each year for busing.

Racine only contracts with Durham School Services, recently caught operating buses State Patrol had ordered off the roads for safety issues like bad brakes. The school district says the bus company self-reported the violations on January 24th, just days after the FOX6 Investigators asked Durham for comment about its inspections.

In an email, a spokesperson for Racine Unified said the school district is adding accountability requirements to its busing contracts and reviewing proposals from other companies for the next school year. However, the email goes on to say that Racine's size does not require contracting with more than one company.

The investigations continue

The FOX6 Investigators are still digging into school bus issues, including efforts to improve State Patrol inspections and better hold bus companies accountable.

Click here to access FOX6's school bus database of 2017 inspections in Southeast Wisconsin.