ANCHORAGE - Officials were forced to close schools north of Anchorage on Tuesday after vandals damaged the tires on 45 buses.
The closure kept about 14,700 students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District home for the day.
The damage to nearly half of the district's 97 buses was discovered early Tuesday morning outside a bus barn owned by the contractor on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, MatSu School District spokeswoman Kim Floyd said.
First Student is the district's main bus contractor and serves 31 of the 36 Mat-Su public schools. The district is about 40 miles north of Anchorage.
"It's completely disabled our bus service for our core," Floyd said.
Dave Dickerson, contract manager for First Student, said company workers spotted flat tires on numerous buses when the arrived at work at 3 a.m. They started work early Tuesday to ensure buses were operating in temperatures that reached 9 below zero overnight in Palmer and Wasilla.
The vandal flattened tires by removing valve stems, he said.
"It takes a little time to do that," Dickerson said.
"It took a very determined person," Floyd said. "It was very cold last night."
The vandal also unplugged engine block heaters designed to aid in cold-weather starts, Dickerson said.
The contractor also found broken mirrors and some buses were entered. The bus company will conduct a full check on each bus to make sure the buses are safe to operate, Floyd said.
Dickerson said some of the valve stems remained in the parking lot and some were missing. Because of the way the tires were vandalized, they can be fixed, he said.
He said buses should be ready in time to resume routes today. He estimated the repairs and wages will cost $10,000.
Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said an investigation was initiated Tuesday. He encouraged anyone with information about the vandalism to call the trooper office.
Dickerson said the company will take measures to prevent additional vandalism.
"Our biggest issue will be getting security for our yard," Dickerson said.