A report released Thursday by North Dakota State Auditor Joshua Gallion showed that the North Dakota Highway Patrol was not following its internal policies for school bus inspections.
The audit also revealed that the NDHP inaccurately was tracking inspections and wasn’t working from a complete list of vehicles to be inspected. Meanwhile, the audit also uncovered errors in how federal grant dollars were expensed.
The audit suggests school districts have been lax in reporting ownership and inspection information about school buses and speculates about whether state school aid could be withheld from districts that do not provide complete information.
North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the North Dakota Legislature would have to decide on whether to give the Department of Public Instruction the authority to withhold state aid from schools that submit incomplete school transportation reports.
During the 2017-2018 school year, the North Dakota Highway Patrol inspected 1,221 vehicles that transported students, the auditor’s report said. Of those, 230 vehicles had one defect and 123 had multiple defects. A total of 541 defects were noted in the report.
The top five inspection defects were: clearance lights, 44; eight-lamp warning system, 41; backup lamp/alarm, 37; inoperable emergency exits, 33; and step well light, 32. It is the responsibility of the school district to fix the defects.
Before the 2017-2018 school year, the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s internal policy was to inspect all of North Dakota’s school buses. Those procedures were changed for the 2018-2019 school year: The highway patrol inspected all of the buses at a school district only if it had no mechanic on staff. Otherwise, half of the buses were to be inspected.
The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, however, advertises that 100% of North Dakota’s school buses are inspected, so that claim is not accurate, the audit said.
"The purpose of these inspections is to ensure the safety features are working properly on buses that transport thousands of North Dakota children,” Gallion said in a prepared statement. “The fact that the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction falsely advertises that inspections are done on 100% of school buses is concerning."
Baesler disputed Gallion’s assertion that her agency advertised that inspections are done on 100% of school buses.
The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s manual for school districts and bus drivers asks that school buses be inspected annually by the highway patrol. However, state law and regulation don’t require annual inspection and the department doesn’t have the legal authority to make the highway patrol do so, Baesler said.
The highway patrol’s internal policy set in the 2017-2018 school year also required that a minimum of 10% of buses that showed defects during initial inspection be reinspected no later than 30 days after the report.
The highway patrol responded to the audit that it agreed with the findings that inspections and reinspections were not conducted as its policy laid out. However, the NDHP noted in its response that correcting the deficiencies is the responsibility of the school district and that the highway patrol doesn’t have authority to impose any further fines, penalties or sanctions if the agency reinspected the buses and found them out of compliance.
The audit also looked at the highway patrol’s spending of federal grant dollars and found errors in how the dollars were expensed, the audit said, noting that if proper procedures had been followed, North Dakota would have had an additional $41,485 in its general fund.
The highway patrol responded that it agreed with the recommendation to put procedures in place to maximize the use of federal dollars.
“This audit includes suggestions about how we can improve school bus inspection procedures and reporting,” Baesler said in a prepared statement. “We welcome that conversation. We are always open to explore ways of enhancing student and school bus safety.”