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109 Denver School Buses Found Faulty

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School-bus safety, a continuing concern in districts across the country, became something more than that for Denver school officials this month, when a comprehensive inspection uncovered mechanical problems serious enough to ground a third of the district's bus fleet.

Although officials last week said they had substantially recovered from the transportation crisis, they said they had been forced to reschedule the starting time of middle schools and to eliminate bus service for high-school students for two weeks.

The problem developed when a comprehensive mechanical inspection of the district's 329 buses on the first weekend of November uncovered mechanical defects in 109 buses, ranging from tire and brake problems to loose steering wheels and cracked frames, according to Joseph Marchese, who has recently been hired as fleet coordinator for the Denver system after serving as a transportation consultant to the Colorado Department of Education.

In consequence, district officials decided to open middle schools 30 minutes early to allow most buses to run double routes for both elementary- and middle-school students. However, according to officials, the district was not able to provide service for its 3,000 high-school students.

The district last week received the final shipment of 100 buses that it has leased to replace those found in need of repairs. These buses have enabled the district to return to a normal schedule for all 22,700 students who regularly use them, according to Robert Gould, a spokesman for the district.

"We've reached one plateau in a series we will need to climb before we reach the pinnacle--which is a safe, efficient, and cost-effective bus system," said Carle E. Stenmark, deputy superintendent in charge of supportive and financial services for the district.

Attention was focused on bus maintenance in the district following an accident on Sept. 30 in which five students and two adults were injured when a bus overturned after its rear wheels and axle fell off.

A team of transportation experts provided by the state evaluated the district's bus-maintenance program at the request of Superintendent of Schools James P. Scamman.

They initially found, district officials acknowledged, that 225 of the district's buses had not had their annual state-mandated brake inspection. As a result of that finding, the inspectors recommended that the district do a thorough maintenance check of all buses. It was that second check that uncovered the mechanical problems.

Among the factors that the review team cited as contributing to the poor condition of the buses were: in-adequate supervision of bus maintenance, undertrained mechanics, low morale in the transportation staff, and the high average age of buses in the fleet, many of which were purchased in the mid-1970's to comply with court-ordered desegregation.

The district has also hired Thomas J. Hanson as interim transportation director, a new post created on the review panel's recommendation. Formerly, his duties were carried out by an administrator who also had responsibility for the district's security office and food services.

The 100 buses that were leased will replace 47 that may be permanently retired and others that require more maintenance, officials said.--ws

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