Inside the gates, bus drivers were eager to see him.
A Courant analysis of nearly 30,000 school bus inspections in Connecticut magnifies that concern. Among larger school bus operators, Specialty had by far the worst maintenance record in the state in 2009, with inspectors declaring its buses unfit to carry students nearly seven out of 10 times. Specialty's buses on average had five times as many serious violations as buses statewide, and nearly 75 percent more on average than the large bus company with the second-worst record, Autumn Transportation, whose buses were taken off the road in six out of 10 inspections in 2009.
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It was an Autumn bus that crashed in January, killing a Rocky Hill student, and the driver was an employee of Specialty. The two companies, which transport special-education and magnet-school children in Hartford, operate from the same bus yard, have the same shop foreman and use the same mechanics.
Bennett Grossman, president of Specialty, and Salvatore Marotta, president of Autumn, both said they were surprised by the high percentage of out-of-service buses, and said they have increased safety and maintenance efforts since the crash.
"We've been doing this a long time. We take this very, very seriously," Grossman said. "We take the safety of the kids very seriously."
Overall, more than 25 percent of the roughly 7,500 school buses carrying children across the state were ordered off the road in 2009 during routine safety inspections. More than 600 buses had serious brake problems; another 200 had transmission leaks. More than 100 had serious problems with emergency doors and more than 300 had problems with crossing gates or lighted stop signs that extend when a bus is picking up or dropping off students.
Many vehicles were repeat offenders. Among buses that were ordered out of service in 2008 and reinspected in 2009, more than 70 percent were ordered out of service again — sometimes for the same problem, even after carriers had certified that repairs were made.
After a January 2007 check of buses at the New Britain Transportation Co., Inspector Douglas Lecco ordered a Ford van out of service because gas was dripping from the fuel tank. When he returned in June 2008, he found the same van's gas tank leaking and ordered it out of service. Last October, when Lecco inspected the van again, he once again found fuel dripping from a leak in the tank.
For another New Britain Transportation Co. vehicle, inspectors on four consecutive inspections ordered a bus out of service because a dashboard light indicated a possible problem with the braking system.
Peter Agostini, president of New Britain Transportation, did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
For some inspections, state officials specifically noted that earlier violations had not been corrected — even in cases where bus companies had claimed the repairs had been made.
In an inspection last October on a 16-year-old van operated by Windham Technical High School, the inspector noted eight violations, from minor paperwork issues to leaking axles, that had been certified as repaired when the work had not been done.
"FALSE STATEMENT MADE ON INSPECTION REPORT, signed as repaired under penalty of false statement," Inspector Bonnie Morin wrote in her report.
William Seymour, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said that state-owned technical school buses are repaired at multiple facilities and that officials are investigating to determine if false statements were made or if there was confusion or miscommunication about maintenance.
"We're literally in the process of still sorting that out," he said.
Seymour said the agency audits buses with multiple out-of-service records. "In these instances, we reinspect buses with the resources we have and ... issue tickets that carry fines and do spot inspections later," he said.