Accusations of inflated bus repair maintenance caused anger and calls for an investigation April 25 at a meeting of the Oberlin board of education, putting a local mechanic in the crosshairs.
The Oberlin City Schools have run a fleet of eight to 10 buses over the past decade, according to state records. The dispute stems from a vote earlier this year to stop transportation for local students who attend Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville.
The change was made to save a purported $30,000 per year.
Taking exception with that number, a parent group led by Jessa New stepped forward to dispute costs connection to transportation.
New said total maintenance costs jumped from $47,107 in 2006-2007 to $135,453 the following academic year when the school board hired Countryview Services of Wakeman, sometimes referred to in proceedings and contracts as Countryview Farms.
Annual costs to keep the fleet in shape have remained above the $100,000 threshold ever since, peaking at $145,976 in the 2015-2016 school year, she told the board, citing figures filed with the Ohio Department of Education.
Per bus, the numbers have ranged between $12,000 and $19,000.
Those figures don’t compare favorably to the Wellington Schools, where the cost per bus has ranged from $3,000 to $5,000 over the same period. And New said those buses cover a much larger geographic area, so it’s not unreasonable to assume maintenance costs would be higher.
Average maintenance costs for districts with fewer than 100 buses should be $5,474 per vehicle, she said, quoting numbers from a February 2016 edition of School Transportation News. The Ohio School Boards Association made a similar claim in November 2013.
But parent complaints went further than just high busing costs.
New and others questioned whether Countryview owner Matthew Tipple properly registered his business with the state, whether the Oberlin school system is his only customer, why Countryview seems to operate under multiple names, and why “catch-up” maintenance costs in 2006-2007 have never dropped to previous levels.
They also asked why, when it obviously had concerns about transportation costs, the school board had never reopened bids to seek a less expensive vendor.
The complaints drew furrowed brows, nods, and words of concern from board members Anne Schaum, Ken Stanley, and Rosa Gadsden. Fellow members Albert Borroni and Barry Richard were absent.
“I’m embarrassed. I’d like to understand what happened. This doesn’t look good,” said Stanley.
“Something’s fishy with this, it looks to me. Maybe there’s a good explanation,” he added later, in response to allegations by the parents that Tipple may have overbilled the district by as much as $1 million in the past 10 years.
Stanley said the parents had provided enough evidence to warrant a thorough analysis by a third party of what condition Oberlin’s school buses are in and how money has been spent on maintenance.
Tipple, in a phone interview, said the district purchased a bus in 2006 and two more in 2009. But for the better part of a decade, until 2015, the board of education didn’t do anything to keep its fleet fresh.
Most districts buy a school bus per year, rotating out the old models, he said. “It’s way more expensive to keep a 10-year-old bus going than it is with a two-year-old bus,” he said.
When he was hired, “The school had lost all credibility with the state to pass inspection,” Tipple said.
The district is in a no-win public relations position because residents hate seeing money spent on new vehicles and object when it’s spent on repairs, he said.
Cynthia Stewart, a bus driver for the district, called the News-Tribune to take issue with the complaints.
She said New’s numbers “do not accurately reflect what Matt Tipple does for the district and reasons why our costs are so high.”
“He’s a jewel. I do not know what we’d do without him,” she said.
Some of Oberlin’s buses are nearing 20 years of service, including hers, which is 17 years old. She said Tipple is responsible for keeping it on the road, though its body is worn by years of running through salt.
“When Matt took over as a mechanic, our buses were in such a state… I’ll tell you that some of them, you put on the parking break and the bus would still roll forward,” she said.
She, too, said the district’s fleet was in danger of being de-certified by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which does inspections. The board at the time instructed Tipple to correct the situation.
“And he did,” said Stewart, recounting Tipple’s efforts to extend the life of the aging fleet. He will make overnight repairs, works to slow the damage winter salt does to bus bodies, and does not charge a night or weekend rate, she said.
In addition, Tipple services the district’s food truck, snow equipment, lawn equipment, and does other jobs such as building goal posts at Langston Middle School. Stewart said she believes those duties make the per-bus cost look inflated.
An hourly comparison would tell a very different story about Tipple’s charges, she said.
New said the ODE numbers solely cover bus expenses and don’t include additional charges for work done on other vehicles or property.
The complaints affected discussion of two other agenda items.
The first involves the possible purchase of up to three new school buses to replace aging ones. Superintendent David Hall said buses should replaced every five years to ensure the best trade-in price; new models typically cost around $80,000.
The board of education voted to accept bids to get price quotes for new buses, but Schaum said answers are needed on the parents’ maintenance questions before a purchase order is placed.
Board members also unanimously voted to table payment of an $11,000 invoice for repairs Tipple made. According to Gadsden, he billed the district for 68 hours and parts after rebuilding the engine of a bus that died on the road.
A new engine would have cost $18,000, said Hall.
In the meantime, Countryview’s contract with the district expires in July and the board hinted that it won’t be renewed. Hall said he’s seeking bids from other vendors and talking to other school districts about providing maintenance.
Tipple said there is “zero chance” the district has been overbilled for bus maintenance. “I don’t know how they can say that,” he said.
He’s upset about the toll the complaints are taking on his business’ reputation.
“They took something that I did as a special thing for the schools and just ruined it,” Tipple said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.