Fourteen Hall County school buses were vandalized Tuesday night at Johnson High School, school officials said Wednesday.
The vandals painted the windows of several buses with crude images of faces in blue paint, and also wrote "We’ll be back" on one bus ceiling and "Gainesville is next" on another. Every seat on at least two of the buses was slashed. On others, the electrical system was broken into and the relays were stolen. Others had wires pulled out or cut from their front and side panels.
The major damage was done to the front and interior of nine buses on one row, with five buses on the adjacent row missing their tail light covers.
Law enforcement officials had not apprehended any suspects as of Wednesday.
The buses were being kept inside a gated area at Johnson High School because the system’s bus shop was full, Hall schools spokesman Gordon Higgins said.
"At this point, we’re fairly confident these buses should be ready before the time school starts," said Higgins. "These buses are important to us, though, because they are newer buses. ... We don’t think the damage is to the point that all of these buses won’t be ready before school starts."
Jewel Armour, executive director of operations and transportation for Hall County schools, agreed that the damage could have been worse.
"The issue is going to be can we get the materials to fix the buses before school starts. I think we can, I’m confident we can," Armour said. "My concern is that the relays they’ve taken off the electrical panels, that may be an issue as far as getting those from the suppliers."
"It looks bad, but not as bad as it could have been," said Stan Hicks, Hall County bus shop foreman.
Officials first discovered the damage around 7:30 a.m. They were not yet able to estimate the total cost of the damage, and said they’ll need to check the buses out more thoroughly before they’ll know for sure.
Hicks said the biggest cost could be in replacing the damaged seats, which may include expensive fireproof covers that can run up to $100 per seat.
Armour said the damaged buses have a capacity of 90 students, which would make them hard to replace if they cannot be fixed in time for the Aug. 10 start of school. The system has more than 200 buses in its fleet.
"We’ll have to check buses out make sure they’re safe make sure there’s no dangers involved, as far as fire and shortages and that sort of thing," Armour said. "If we get the materials we can be ready, that’s not a problem."
If the buses aren’t ready, he said, others may have to double up on routes to handle the extra load.
Hall County sheriff’s deputies and crime scene investigators were on hand seeking clues, dusting for fingerprints and checking parking lot security video, which showed nothing. The only additional clue appeared to be an empty pizza box left outside the door of one bus.
"They have reviewed the videotape, and unfortunately, nothing’s there," Higgins said. "If they had come through the front the camera would have got them, but they came through the back."
Armour confirmed at the scene that videotape from the school parking lot and the nearby county bus lot showed nothing suspicious.
Higgins said the school system is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who has information that leads to an arrest or conviction of the persons involved in the incident.
Last night’s incident is the second in recent months involving local school buses. On the last day of school, several Gainesville city buses were destroyed by a fire.
Officials investigated the possibility of arson, but later determined an electrical problem caused the fire.
And in June 2007, 33 Hall County school buses were vandalized causing an estimated $60,000 worth of damage.