Bus trip gone bad leads school division to look at charter use

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By Tom Wilmoth

A recent Liberty High School band bus trip to Orlando, Fla., might lead the school division to begin studying charter bus companies and their track records, allowing only a select few to be used for future trips.

    The issue was raised at the end of last week’s Bedford County School Board meeting by District 3 board member Brad Whorley, who recounted details of that April trip, stating that he felt the children had been put “at great risk because of driver fatigue.” Whorley said the driver exceeded federal regulations for driving time allowed.
    He also suggested exploring whether the money paid for the band by the trip could be recouped.
    The president of the charter company used by the school said this week he did all he could to deal with the issues that occurred during the trip from Bedford to Orlando. LHS band director Matthew Farley disagrees.
    The trip, which should have taken less than 13 hours took, close to 23, according to Farley. And, he said, it included numerous breakdowns and problems, with the company failing to provide a new bus when it should have.
    The trip to the 22nd Annual High School Choir Festival at Disney, according  to  Farley,  was  a   reward  to  the Liberty band for its dedication and success during the year. “We try to take a big trip every two years,” he said. “It is supposed to be a reward for their hard work and a place where they can showcase their talent on the national level.”
    But the trip down was more than he had bargained for.
    At the beginning of the trip, Farley said there was a concern about the trip’s length and whether one driver could legally take the bus all the way from Bedford to Orlando. While it was assumed a driver switch would take place, Farley said that was one of many parts of the trip that did not pan out as planned.
    Howard Mullins, president of Gene’s Limousine Service, the company that provided the bus and driver, said the trip should have taken less than 12 hours. He said, according to DOT regulations, a driver is allowed one, 12-hour trip every seven days. Mullins added, however, that a driver switch was in place if needed.
    Mullins said his driver for the trip was a retired Maryland state trooper who knew the law and had arrived the day before which allowed him to get plenty of rest prior to the trip.
    The bus, however, broke an alternator belt making the 12-hour timeframe impossible to meet. Though that problem was fixed, Mullins said two other belts were not put back on correctly during the repairs, which led to another breakdown before the band reached Orlando.
    Farley said the contract called for the company to provide another bus, but that didn’t occur. Calls were made to both Mullins and US Coachways, a company that had subcontracted the bus trip to Gene’s Limousine. The trip down ended up taking about 23 hours.
    “Originally, they had assured me they would find another bus,” Farley stated. “That did not happen.”
    Farley said there were also problems with the loading door of the bus, the linings of the windows and the DVD and audio equipment, which didn’t work properly. He also said, at one point, the bathroom toilet didn’t flush, leading to a clean up “which I personally attended to and will remember for the rest of my life.”
    He said he expected a new bus would be provided for the return trip, but that didn’t happen either. “They did try to fix the first bus and we were assured that it was fixed better than new,” Farley stated. “But we had a whole host of different problems on the way back.”
    The return ended up taking 18 hours and he said the heating and air conditioning system wasn’t working properly. “I personally kept wiping the windows for the bus driver to see,” he said, adding that a stop at Wal-Mart to purchase something to defog the windows didn’t help.
    The band spent about $6,500 on the bus charter. Farley said 10 parents and 42 students went on the trip.
    During the trip, the band got to participate in the concert band competition and spend three days at Disney World.  Because they arrived 10 hours later than planned, the band missed one event and another had to be rescheduled.
    “The first day was supposed to be a relaxing day,” he said. “(The trip) ended up taking that entire first day.”
    Farley said he and the band boosters planned the trip. “They put in a lot of hard work to make sure everything was planned for the trip,” he said of the boosters. That planning began last summer.
    “The trip, overall, once we were in Florida was great,” he said. “The kids had fun.”
    For some of them, he said it was their first trip to Disney. “They may not get many experiences like that,” he said. “There were some great moments to the trip.”
    But the bus trip is one he’d just as soon forget.
    “Our students behaved very well through the whole experience,” he said. “They didn’t let it get them down, though we were all exhausted.”
    Farley said he wishes the charter service would have come through with a new bus. “I will probably wish for a long, long time that the bus (trip) would have gone better,” he said.
    Mullins, however, said there are two sides to every story. He said he did everything he could to find another bus, but a 56-passenger replacement was not available. “My bus broke down, twice. It wasn’t due to anything on my fault. It’s just something that happens.”
    He said he keeps extra belts on the buses and the one that broke on the LHS charter was the only belt that wasn’t on that bus. “I’ve never had one break before,” Mullins said. “Did my bus break? Yes,” he said. “Did it break twice? Yes.”
    He said there was a driver switch on the return trip. Mullins said he did everything he could to make Farley happy and correct the situation.
    Mullins said his buses are inspected every six months and the bus in question had just been checked by the Maryland State Police. “I know we do the best we can,” he said of rectifying problems, adding that the school was “making more of something than it was.”
    He said if his driver thought he was endangering anyone, he would have stopped the bus.
    Farley said he contracted with US Coachways after doing research on charter companies. That company subcontracted the charter out to Gene’s Limousine.
    Calls to US Coachways about the trip were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.