The beleaguered D.C. public school system is not the only institution that has had trouble with its school buses. The private Sidwell Friends School, home to the sons and daughters of U.S. presidents and vice presidents, has its transportation woes, too.
Donald Diggs, until recently a bus driver at the school, said Sidwell has some of the same problems with its bus system that plagued the city schools' bus system last winter, including drivers who don't have all of the legally required licenses. In addition, he said, Sidwell's buses are old and unsafe.
"I was driving a bus with a transmission that wasn't even working right, with kids in it," said Diggs, a part-time driver who contends that he was asked not to return to the school last week after he made similar accusations on WTOP radio. "If these parents knew what kind of raggedy buses their kids were in, they'd scream."
Diggs works for Answer Temps, an employment agency that provides some of the drivers for Sidwell. The agency declined to comment on why Diggs was taken off the Sidwell job.
Ellis Turner, deputy head of Sidwell, said that the school does have old buses but that all of those in operation have passed a safety inspection. He said that in his 19 years at the school, he does not remember an incident in which a child was injured because of the condition of a bus.
"Our drivers are ordered to check the buses daily for safety," Turner said. "We feel our buses are safe. The primary concern of the Sidwell Friends Transportation Department is the safety of our children."
Turner did concede that not all of the drivers have the required licenses, or "face cards," certifying that they have passed physical exams and drug tests. The drivers are in the process of getting them, he said.
The D.C. public school system's bus fleet is new. But officials were criticized earlier this year because many of the 300 drivers did not have face cards. Dozens were fired, including some drivers found to have criminal records.
Diggs said two Sidwell drivers were suspended recently after taking drug tests. Turner declined to discuss personnel matters, but said: "We are in full compliance with the U.S. Department of Transportation regulations regarding random drug and alcohol testing. When there is a positive test, we have acted promptly."
Sidwell, which has campuses in the District and Bethesda, has 15 buses that ferry some 220 students. It is one of Washington's most elite schools. Chelsea Clinton is a Sidwell graduate, and Vice President Gore's teenage son is a student there.
Many of Sidwell's buses are more than 20 years old and frequently are sent for repair to Bob Smith Auto Repair Klinique in Northeast Washington, according to shop owner Bob Smith. Some of the buses, he said, are "in bad shape."
"We've been doing a lot of work on them. . . . When a vehicle needs so much service, you question whether it needs to be in operation or you go and get another vehicle."
Smith said his shop has been working on the school's buses for more than a year. When they were first brought to him, he said, "the mechanical work was not up to my expectations."
Chris Ma, vice chairman of Sidwell's Board of Trustees, said he has never heard parents complain about the buses. His two children used to ride them, he said, with no problem. "I can't imagine anything that a school would be more vigilant about on a continuing basis," he said.