MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - One's awaiting trial on theft charges. Another hasn't filed its U.S. Department of Transportation registration in two years.
They are two of the 36 vendors on Shelby County Schools' approved list of charter travel companies. The district's schools pay the vendors by the trip to transport staff and students to extracurricular events when the district's primary bus contractor, Durham School Services, is unavailable.
Thursday, SCS Chief of Staff Reginald Porter, Jr., announced the district has suspended all charter bus services for the district until each vendor submits its safety records. The announcement came after a WMC Action News 5 investigation of Tuesday's charter bus fire involving Central High School's basketball teams and cheerleaders. The investigation revealed Jefferson Travel and Tours, the charter company, has a F-rating with the Better Business Bureau for safety complaints.
Jefferson Travel and Tours also carries a revoked corporate status from the Tennessee Department of State and an expired Shelby County business license.
"You did bring it to our attention," Porter, Jr., said. "We have acted swiftly."
Not swiftly enough.
WMC Action News 5 got a head start on the charter vendors' safety records. Most of them are travel agencies which sub-contract their transportation services, so it's impossible to gauge their vehicle safety. Some are rental-only companies.
But six, including Jefferson Travel and Tours, have serious histories that the district should have considered before leaving them on the approved list:
* Barbara Davis DBA Diamond Travel Service. Davis, a MLGW employee, runs her travel service on the side. In October, she was arrested and charged with theft. WMC Action News 5 covered the story when she was charged with stealing more than $23,000 from 11 of her cruise clients. She faces a preliminary hearing in February.
* ABC Charters, LLC. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Safety Measurement System (SMS), ABC Charters LLC's Memphis operation "...has an inactive USDOT number..." for its "failure to complete its biennial (registration)."
* Cross Country Tours, Inc. Despite its SMS rating of "satisfactory," the Millington charter company carries more than a dozen maintenance violations since 2013 according to SMS records, from "inoperative turn signal" to "no or defective brake warning device."
* Christian Chapel Charters, Inc. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration lists the Memphis charter as "not rated" -- and it "...has no current for-hire operating authority with FMCSA."
* Franklin's Coach & Tours. SMS records indicated last August, this Memphis charter "knowingly allowed" a driver to operate a charter vehicle with a suspended commercial driver's license. The charter was also cited for failing to maintain a driver qualification file on each of its drivers.
"We're reviewing all of our processes to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Porter, Jr.
This is happening after a months-long investigation of Durham School Services' accident and driver history. After 42 crash incidents in three months and WMC Action News 5's revealing of drivers with felony records, suspended licenses and lengthy motor vehicle histories, the company implemented a 3-point plan to overhaul its background checks, drug-tests and recruitment of drivers for both SCS and the county's six municipal districts.
Durham's spokesperson Molly Hart denied our request Friday for a statistical update on its safety enhancements. Durham's contract with SCS is worth more than $25 million a year.
Thursday, Porter, Jr, and SCS spokesperson Kristin Tallent revealed the unified SCS never vetted the charter travel vendor list when it inherited it from the Memphis City Schools/Shelby County Schools merger in 2013. Tallent said the charter vendors are not under contract. She said they are paid by the trip, usually out of the budgets of the schools they're serving.
Crown Coach Charters & Tours of Bartlett, TN, holds the safest and most satisfactory record of all of SCS's charter vendors, according to our analysis. Vice President John Wilson said his company has been on the list since the days of Memphis City Schools. He said back then, school officials requested his company's insurance certificate, inspection records and driver logs annually.
Since the merger, nothing. "To my knowledge, there really hasn't been any vetting since they switched to (unified) Shelby County," he said.
He said the only thing the unified SCS has requested from Crown is its insurance certificate. "But that's something that is sent out automatically when our insurance renews, but other than that, no, they have never asked for an inspection (or inspection records)."
"The safety of our students is a top priority," Tallent said, "and all vendors' records with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are being reviewed by our staff."