TAMPA, Fla. - They are breaking down, falling apart and posing a risk to students.
That's what current and former Hillsborough County school employees say about the district's buses.
Smoke poured from Hillsborough County bus 3948 as it picked up high school students in the Riverview community.
It was the early morning of Jan. 13.
“I had all the kids that mainly sit in the back of the bus already, so imagine if I would have drove. We probably all would have been gone,” said bus driver Chassey Graham a short time after the fire.
Luckily, no one was hurt.
But the I-Team recently learned that the fire resulted from a maintenance issue that stemmed from an outsourced repair made almost two years earlier.
Records show the 2002 model bus was in the shop five times, spent dozens of days out of service and cost the district more than $17,000 in repairs in the three years before the fire.
Debra Gettys, a Hillsborough County bus driver since 2007, is currently on leave, but said old buses are a big problem.
“I don't believe I'd want my son on an older bus, because the buses are not safe,” Gettys said.
She often has to drive an old bus when she brings her regular bus in for monthly maintenance and inspections, she said.
Inspections are required every 30 days under Florida law.
Gettys claims mechanics are so strapped trying to keep the district's fleet of nearly 1,400 buses running they often fall behind.
“Very seldom I would get my bus back. They would put me in another junk pile, another bus,” she said. “It could be days, weeks before I ever got my bus back.”
In neighboring Pasco County, inspections are performed every 25 days on a much smaller fleet.
There, the average age of a bus is just under 10 years.
“Ten years would be our magic number on vehicle replacement. That's kind of the guideline from the state that they would like to see folks in a 10-year cycle,” said Pasco County Schools Transportation Director Tad Kledzik.
Hillsborough County's buses are an average of 13.7 years old, by far the oldest buses with the highest mileage of the six Tampa Bay area school districts we examined.
Nearly 70 percent of Hillsborough County's buses are more than a decade old, while only 2 percent are less than five years old.
A third of Hillsborough County's buses have more than 200,000 miles on them.
Among those is bus number 3785, which has traveled more than 563,861. That’s more than the distance to the moon and back, then around the earth three times.
It's still running a regular daily route.
So is bus 3091, which has 493,951 miles.
That's not encouraging news to some parents.
“It's neglect of the bus. Our kids are on there, anything can happen,” said a former Hillsborough County bus monitor, who asked us to identify her only as “Tracy.”
“We have a problem here. We've got to take a look at what our busing system looks like as a whole. We do need to look at buying new buses, we know that,” said Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin.
The district's transportation director just resigned.
That followed the retirement of a long-time supervisor, who characterized the fleet as old and dangerous and many of the district's mechanics as incompetent.
Hillsborough County schools have hired a consultant and held public forums to address the issues.
“If there are some things we need to address, we need to pull it all together and prioritize and address those things,” Hillsborough County schools spokesman Steve Hegarty.
Until new buses are placed in the fleet, Gettys believes drivers will have to keep driving spares.
“They're terrible to me. If I was running the department, I wouldn't even want them on the highway. They're a disgrace to Hillsborough County,” she said.
More: 33% of Hillsborough school buses have more than 200,000 miles on them. Check your kid's bus! http://wfts.tv/1lLeJIv .
Editor’s note: Hillsborough County School District provided ABC Action News with the numbers in this report. After this story aired, the district informed us that we were given the wrong mileage for the bus with the highest mileage in Hillsborough.
The bus with the most miles in Hillsborough County actually has almost 494,000 miles.