WJW-TV, Cleveland: ‘School Bus Bloat’

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In the summer of 2004 Cleveland was a city in crisis. It had a $100 million budget deficit and had just laid off 800 teachers.

So when reporter Tom Merriman of Fox-owned WJW-TV got a tip that the Cleveland Municipal School District had hundreds of spare bus drivers swelling its payroll, he looked into it. What he found became a 22-part series that ran over nine months, from October 2004 through June 2005.

He discovered the city had 225 buses on the road and 206 spare drivers, many of whom spent their days loafing-shooting pool, watching TV, even playing charades.

Mr. Merriman and the WJW investigative team began counting the kids on the buses. “It turned out all these numbers were bogus; 199 buses were inflated,” he said.

He explained that the number of kids on the buses determines the amount of funding the schools receive. The district had added four extra ghost riders to the count for every bus run, he said. (Every bus had multiple runs.)

“When we did the story on how the new count was inflated, the state redid the count and found the school district had inflated the number of kids by more than 3,000. It went from 9,000 kids to under 6,000,” he said.

One report spotlighted a bus that was supposed to be full but was carrying only one student.

Mr. Merriman said the CEO of the school district repeatedly denied that the district was deliberately inflating the numbers. He added that the CEO confirmed ridership was overstated but called it an error due to “sloppiness.”

“I leave it up to the conclusion of the viewers,” Mr. Merriman said.

And the voters too.

Last summer Cleveland citizens defeated by a wide margin an operating levy to raise property taxes to resolve the district’s budget problems. A few days later the CEO of the school district resigned. “The failure of the levy indicated a loss of the public’s confidence in the CEO’s credibility and fiscal management,” Mr. Merriman said.

As a result of the coverage, the school district cut 129 bus driver positions, saving taxpayers $4 million, and returned $729,000 to the Ohio Department of Education.

“We did our job,” Mr. Merriman said. “Our job is to hold our officials accountable for how they spend our money and explain to the public, and we were able to do that over a period of months.”

The station’s work is all the more impressive because of the research WJW and Mr. Merriman did, said Jonnet Abeles, director of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards. “They staked out the bus routes and got the records for how many kids were riding,” she said. “It got deeper and deeper and he kept checking the records, and there is no substitute for that.”