Education budget crunch leads to school bus maintenance problems

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

The night of Nov. 5, 2015 saw a freight train slam into a stalled school bus in Maricopa. Video captured inside the bus shows the driver frantically trying to restart the bus, before grabbing her bag and jumping out the driver's side door. The video goes black when the train hits the bus.

Fortunately, nobody was injured in that collision. But the police investigation contains a piece of information that ought to send shivers down the spines of school district officials across the state. The bus's "check engine" light had been on for a year.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona schools in crisis]

A CBS 5 Investigation found that as school budgets have tightened, basic school bus maintenance has fallen by the wayside at dozens of school districts across the state. We combed through thousands of pages of Department of Public Safety school bus inspection records -- five years of records in all. We found hundreds of buses that were flagged with basic to serious safety problems.

Problems included bad tires, worn tire treads, bad brakes, exhaust leaks under bus chassis, worn out steering components, inoperable headlights, inoperable turn signals, leaking fuel tanks, inoperable emergency exits, fuel tanks that were coming loose, emergency exit alarms that were rigged to not go off, leaking brake lines, emergency exits tied closed, leaking fuel lines, and buses in use that were supposed to be out of service due to severe safety problems.

Districts all over Arizona were cited.

"The school districts are being starved of the money they need," said Danny Adelman, who is the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Adelman is suing the state on behalf of school districts that claim the state isn't proving adequate funding.

"This is one of the legislature's most important responsibilities. It is in the Arizona Constitution that the legislature has to adequately fund public schools," said Adelman.

State lawmakers dramatically cut funding for schools 10 years ago when the Great Recession crippled tax coffers. But as the economy has recovered, state leaders have failed to fully fund the needs of Arizona schools. Lawmakers often say the state doesn't have the money.

But an examination of tax records shows one of the reasons for the budget shortfall: dramatic corporate tax cuts. In 2006, Arizona corporations paid nearly $1 billion in state income taxes. By 2016, that figure had dropped to just $368 million.

The result is a statewide shortage of roughly 2,000 teachers, schools need new roofs and air conditioners, districts that can't afford to build the new schools they need, text books that still show Bill Clinton as president, a massive teacher strike and school buses that are falling apart.

"The only reason our people stay here is that they love our district," said Clementina Salinas, who is the transportation director of the Cartwright Elementary School District.

Cartwright has had no serious school bus maintenance violations, but it hasn't been easy for the district to retain its mechanics and drivers. Salinas says she only has four spare buses to rely on as backups for the entire district. And several of the buses are 18 and 20 years old.

Back in Maricopa, it is not known whether the "check engine" light had anything to do with why the bus stalled. The bus's engine was demolished in the collision.

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Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award, and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. In October 2016, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School at Purdue University Global. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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