Buses transporting students in Gary and Indianapolis had some of the worst ratings.
"Every day, I put her on that bus, but I didn't know about any of that," said Art Mabry after putting his granddaughter, Haley Mabry, on a bus in Indianapolis' Warren Township, where 29 percent of buses were ordered out of service. "If there's those kinds of issues going on, that's just total neglect for the safety of all these little children on these buses."
State law requires that Indiana State Police troopers inspect every school bus at least once a year. The inspections results often range from broken brackets and torn cushions to mechanical issues and failing emergency equipment inside the bus. But more serious issues with items like brakes also have been found.
"I look at every bus as a bus my child would be riding," said ISP motor carrier inspector Chris Kath. "These buses are transporting our children. What's more important than that?"
Indiana State Police say that during the inspection, no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of a school district's buses should be ordered placed out of service, the most serious category of safety violation. But the WTHR investigation found rates as high as 49 percent for the Illinois Central Bus Co., which serves Gary Community Schools.
Kevin Mest, chief operating officer for Illinois Central, attributed the failure to pass inspection to "a lack of preparation on our part."
"We should have done better. We're making plans to do better this year," he said.
Rodger Smith, operations director for Lawrence Township Schools in Indianapolis, said it was "totally unacceptable" to have 40 percent of his district's buses placed out of service during an inspection in March.
He said the district has stepped up efforts to fix all problems each time a bus comes in for service. But he acknowledged that the money for maintenance isn't as plentiful as it once was because of property tax caps that have cut his transportation budget by more than $1 million a year.
The district used to have seven bus mechanics but now has just four to maintain 200 buses.
"I'm not saying it's an excuse, but it's a pressure all school districts are moving to right now," Smith said. "A lack of budget within our transportation department — think about what kind of pressures that puts on us."
Even with the budget issues, Kath said he's still perplexed that the problems are allowed to continue.
"I wonder how those people still have their jobs and how the school and the school board is allowing it to go on," he said. "They have to know, you're putting a child at risk."