TEMPE, Ariz. -- Somebody broke into the Tempe Elementary School District bus yard and stole 34 batteries from parked buses overnight.
It happened at Priest and University drives. The vandalism was discovered shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday, when the first driver arrived for work.
He had just boarded his bus when he glanced at the bus parked next to his and saw that the battery tray not only had been pulled out, but was empty, said Paul Novak, who has been the director of transportation and safety for Tempe Elementary School District for nearly 20 years.
While the batteries of passenger vehicles are housed under the hood, that's not the case with buses. Designed to give drivers and maintenance crews quick and easy access, the battery compartments of school buses are located on the sides of the bus body, closed only by a simple latch.
"We saw that the entire third row [of buses] had been vandalized," Novak told 3TV's Jill Galus. That's 18 buses.
According to district spokeswoman Monica Allread, 13 of the affected buses are for special-needs students. Those buses require a second battery to power their wheelchair lifts. Some of the other buses use a second battery, as well.
Mechanics scrambled to replace the missing batteries as quickly as possible, installing batteries from buses that were in the garage for maintenance.
While all of TESD's routes were covered, the buses ran 15 to 30 minutes late. The buses had caught up and were running on time by about 7:30 a.m. They were expected to run as usual in the afternoon.
Stealing large bus batteries is not a simple task. Each battery weighs about 130 pounds.
"We have seen a recent trend in our Broadway corridor here along the Phoenix border with some of these recent thefts, burglaries committed for these batteries," Tempe police Sgt. Steve Carbajal said. "We're going to see what we can do to try to find the people that were responsible for this."
It's not clear why the thieves wanted the batteries, but lead-acid batteries can be sold for recycling.
According to John Nolan, owner of Xtreme Recycling in Mesa, recyclers pay either by the unit or by the pound. By the unit, the stolen batteries would be worth $15 to $20 each. The going per-pound rate is 20 to 25 cents, which means each battery would be worth about $26 to $32.50.
According to Novak, there was a large hole cut in a chain-link fence not far from the crippled buses.
Novak said he will work with Tempe detectives to review surveillance video of the bus yard.
Allread said the district is reviewing its security measures in and around the lot and will make adjustments as needed.