Equipment list highlights aging bus fleet

 
When 14 buses from the Palmer Bus. Co. were taken off the road after failing inspections last month in the TCU District, officials took notice.
 
Members of the district’s transportation committee met with Palmer officials on Tuesday, Nov. 12, who assured  the district steps are being taken to right the issues after the failed inspections. Attending the meeting were the TCU school board representatives Marsha Franek, Kevin Huber and Brad O’Keefe and Superintendent Teri Preisler. 
 
Floyd Palmer, owner of Palmer Bus Service, apologized and vowed to set things right with the busing issues.
 
At the school board meeting that followed, Franek reported that both sides talked through the issues and the inspections. Thomas Watson, of the Watson Consulting Group who was hired by TCU to help decide on the busing contract when TCU formed, said that Palmer Bus. Co. also gave TCU a list of corrective actions that they are taking. 
 
Aging fleet
According to the contract with TCU signed in 2012, conventional and mini-buses shall not be older  than 15 years old or 150,000 miles. That would mean TCU students shouldn’t be transported in any buses older than those built in 1997.
 
TCU Bus Manager John Stivers said some of the buses in the fleet that are used to transport TCU students are older. 
 
According to the Palmer Bus Service Equipment List, dated November 7, 2013, bus #25 used on regular routes was manufactured in 1997, making it approximately 16 years old. 
 
Another, bus #22 was built in 1998 and is used as a route bus. This one is currently in the shop for body work. 
 
Another bus, this one #15, is listed from 1999 and has 194,558 miles on it. It is being used as a spare bus, which Stivers said is not assigned daily duty, but is used to replace a bus if it is in the shop or if a trip requires another unit. He added that spare buses can be used at any district that also uses buses from Palmer.  
 
Bus #22 from 1997, which is also used as a spare, has 157,610 miles on it.
 
One bus, #28 built in 2000, is used as a trip bus with 170,669 miles on it. Stivers said trip buses are just that - used for field trips. 
 
There’s also another route bus, #2 from 2000, with 149,559 miles on it.
 
However, Stivers said, the list can be taken in the wrong light because several new replacement buses are coming in and may not yet be on the list. One bus, #9 built in 2002, was purchased from Telin Transportation and became available the week of November 10.
 
In Le Center, there are approximately 28 Palmer units, but not all of them are used daily for TCU schools. However, the other buses there can be used to transport children in other school districts such as Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton or Shakopee. Stivers said they are stored in Le Center  and Montgomery due to its location and driver pool in the area. 
“Internally, we are reorganizing with our spare buses,” Stivers said. 
 
Palmer history
People in Montgomery and Lonsdale will remember a shaky start with the Palmer Bus. Co. when the Montgomery-Lonsdale School District hired the company in 2009.
 
On the first two days of school, on September 2 and 3, 2008, students had been left standing at bus stops, others had been dropped off at home more than three hours late, buses broke down, frustrated drivers got lost with newly changed routes, some drivers didn’t know which students they had on their buses or where they lived, while other drivers were frustrated at  mechanical safety concerns in their buses. 
 
Then Floyd Palmer also apologized to school officials at a school board meeting saying that he had made a mistake by putting the wrong people in the wrong positions to coordinate the bus situation before school started.
 
Those two people were immediately terminated and current manager John Stivers was brought on board. 
 
However, Palmer’s apology was not enough to keep some of the former bus drivers who had worked in the district for many years. Safety concerns, buses with broken gas and heat gages, speedometers, missing emergency brake pedals and other concerns were enough to make Sally Kolf, then a 10-year bus driver for the M-L district, leave her position. At the same board meeting, Kolf gave an emotional testimony as to why she left the job she loved, saying it was more than just mixed up of bus routes.  
 
“The fire extinguishers were not charged. There was no first aid kit, insurance papers, or contact sheets with the kids’ names, their parents’ names, addresses or school information on them,” she had said.
 
According to the state patrol records, the number of Palmer buses that failed in this school district is high.  In 2012, nine  out of 46 buses failed inspection. 
 
An inspection of a Palmer Bus used for a field trip  for the M-L School District at the MN Zoo on April 8, 2010, showed nine violations for worn tire tread, inoperable emergency brakes, tie rod issues, and a fire extinguisher with a pulled pin and missing nozzle. The bus was cited with 170 points by the Minnesota State Patrol. Any school bus cited with more than 20 points is deemed unsafe by the state for transporting school children. 
 
School buses that fail inspection can not be used to transport school children until the repairs are made, no matter where the bus is inspected. If it is inspected off the district grounds, the bus is halted and a replacement bus must be sent to return the students.
 
Future
Stivers added that some of the buses that failed inspection last month have already been reinspected. He said they are working to rectify the situation. They have hired an additional mechanic, and have swapped out many vehicles and/or retired older ones.