Officials with the Austin Area School District in Potter County are responding to allegations that its school buses and vehicles are overcrowded, unsafe and illegally operated, assuring parents that the safety of hundreds of daily bus riding students is not at risk despite a growing record of bus company infractions and mounting public concern.
School district parents like Renee Smoker of Austin are demanding the district address concern surrounding conditions on vehicles owned and operated by the district’s transportation services provider, Austin-based Bollhorst Busing.
Smoker claims that between 13 and 15 children daily, including her own, have been routinely crammed into a school van with only enough room to safely fit seven passengers. She said her six-year-old child claimed to have been made to lay on the floor of the van and that another student was made to ride in “the trunk.” In one case, Smoker claims her 9 year old daughter was made to sit in the lap of a 15 year old male student with behavioral issues.
After other parents and children confirmed her suspicions, Smoker took the issue to school officials.
When her repeated appeals to school officials failed to yield results, Smoker went to the state police.
On May 17, officers with the Coudersport-based state police barracks cited Bollhorst Busing for failure to use safety belts and driving unregistered vehicles. Meanwhile, on May 25, the company received 18 additional citations for violations of vehicle equipment standards, according to online court records.
A company bus driver was also cited for being unqualified to operate a school bus.
Company owner Dan Bollhorst told The Era on Thursday that all equipment citations — everything from cracked exhaust pipes to broken leaf springs and door handles — have been addressed. He added, “as of now none of our buses are in violation.”
Bollhorst said the unqualified employee remains with the company and will take a physical exam needed to obtain state certification on June 3.
But those like Smoker are unsatisfied, calling on the district to review its contract with the bus company.
“The school says it went with Bollhorst because their bid is the lowest bid, but I think they (school district) should spend some money and get something safe in here for our kids,” Smoker said.
Carla McKeirnan, a former bus driver with Bollhorst Busing, agreed that the district’s fleet is dangerous, citing students overwhelmed by fumes caused by “massive vehicle emissions leaks” as well as malfunctioning warning lights, and vehicles frequently stalling.
McKeirnan said she refused to drive for the company until the fleet was fixed and has since removed her granddaughter, a student with the Austin district, from district school buses.
Bollhorst denies his fleet is unsafe and described the public criticism as nothing more than a smear campaign orchestrated by disgruntled employees.
He confirmed incidents involving students being made to sit on top of other students in an overcrowded company van. He said the driver responsible has been “admonished” and docked two days pay.
Bollhorst remains confident that the next state police bus inspection, scheduled to take place on June 23, will turn up no transgressions.
“My kids take the bus, too, and I wouldn’t want my kids to ride an unsafe school bus,” Bollhorst said.
Acting district Superintendent Jerry Sasala on Thursday weighed in on the subject, saying, “We’re working on a shoestring budget and doing everything we can to work with our contractor and the number one thing is safety.”
Sasala added, “We never felt that student safety was in jeopardy.”
Similar assurances were offered to state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, when he contacted the district on Thursday after hearing from two Austin School District parents concerned about the busing situation.
“We’re aware state police inspected (Bollhorst Busing) vehicles and found issues with them and the school district superintendent (Sasala) assured us the issues were being corrected,” Causer told The Era. “Certainly, safety is of the utmost importance and that’s why we reached out.”
State police school bus inspectors were not available for comment as of press time Thursday night.
A 2012 Pennsylvania Auditor General audit of the Austin Area School District found the district continued use of improperly certified bus drivers years after state agencies called on school officials to begin taking corrective action.
According to the report, bus drivers with Bollhorst Busing and Austin district lacked “proper school bus driver skills and safety training” and that criminal background and child abuse clearances for drivers were not on file with the district. The report says the discrepancies were first uncovered in 2006 and remained unaddressed as of 2012.
Sasala said while failing to meet state requirements of school bus operators, the drivers met the terms of the district’s transportation contract with Bollhorst Busing.
“Our contracts say they (drivers) have to have a valid PA drivers license and valid physician certificate, which they do have, by our contract it was completely legal,” Sasala said. He added, “I guess we will have to update our (transportation) contract.”
No timetable was given for the contract revision. The school board meets next on June 11.
Headed into that meeting and the summer recess, the district continues to grapple with fallout from the Auditor General report, which also found teachers without proper certification instructing Austin students. As a result, the state withheld at least $17,000 in subsidies and funding to the district over a three-year-period.
Sasala said Thursday the district’s use of uncertified teachers was a result of growing financial constraints and lack of an available talent pool.
Dr. James Pomeroy, an Austin English teacher uncertified in Spanish instruction, continued to hold class in both subjects. He has been pulling double-duty with the district for the past five years and is set to retire at year’s end.
“It was easier for us to pay a fine than find a teacher,” Sasala said.
The fines, he explained, average $15,000 compared to $40,000 annually for a teacher’s salary.
“We’re looking for a teacher with dual certification but it’s difficult finding that in a rural area,” Sasala said.
The school district is the smallest in the state with roughly 200 kindergarten through grade 12 pupils and 23 teachers.
Sasala defended the move, saying the double assignment had not been to the detriment of student learning in either subject, despite Pomeroy’s lack of oral fluency in the Spanish language.
“We believe they’ve gotten a good education. The kids passed all of their college (preparation) courses.”