School transportation

SC buys 342 new school buses

jself@thestate.comDecember 27, 2012 

  • More information New bus specs First buses S.C. has purchased with air-conditioning units already installed Seats are wider and have high backs and fire resistant material. Emergency exit hatch in the roof as well as door exits Seat between 20-29 students Wheelchairs face forward instead of sideways, increasing comfort for riders.

— South Carolina is getting 342 new school buses – brand new, that is.

The new buses, costing $82,030 each, will allow the state to replace its oldest buses. Some of those buses are 28 years old. Most of the buses that will be replaced were made between 1984 and 1987, education officials said.

“We will be retiring most but not all of the Ronald Reagan-era buses,” said state education superintendent Mick Zais at a news conference Thursday.

Making up 6.8 percent of the state’s fleet of 5,023 active buses, the $28 million purchase is the state’s first substantial acquisition of new buses since 2008.

About a third of the new buses have been distributed, replacing the state’s oldest buses wherever they are located. Lexington and Richland counties will receive 49 of the new buses.

In recent years, the S.C. Department of Education has purchased used buses from Kentucky and Alabama to replace even older buses in the state fleet.

“It’s an unfortunate but true fact that two-thirds of our fleet in South Carolina exceeded 15 years of age and that South Carolina has the oldest school bus fleet in the nation,” Zais said. “Some students in South Carolina are riding in the same buses that their parents rode to school in over 25 years ago.”

The state’s school buses require two or three service calls a year on average, S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jay Ragley said. Calls include everything from a smoking engine to a light bulb that needs replacement. A 1986 bus with 523,000 miles that is slated for replacement was on display Thursday.

The new buses are all equipped to transport students with disabilities as well as other students, which will provide more flexibility in designing routes.

The new buses also are 29 percent more efficient than the buses that they will replace, Zais said. That will result in “enormous (fuel) savings,” he said, adding the buses will be “far better for the environment” and less expensive to maintain.

Most of the $28 million needed to buy the buses will come from lottery money:

• $18.3 million came from unclaimed lottery prize money from the last two years.

• $6.3 million came from excess lottery revenue from 2011-2012 appropriated in the state’s 2012 budget.

The rest will come from general fund dollars carried forward from previous years or from revenues collected through selling parts and scrap metal from older buses – too old and expensive to maintain.

Before 2007, the state purchased about 90 buses a year, meaning it would take 62 years to replace its entire fleet, according to information on the Education Department’s web site. In 2007, the General Assembly approved a plan to annually replace aging buses, saying the old vehicles were potentially dangerous and prevented students from getting to school on time. Amid the recession, however, that plan went largely unfunded.

In her executive budget, Gov. Nikki Haley recommends shifting school bus operations to local school districts, allowing them to manage the buses on their own, contract with private providers or some combination of both.

While lawmakers decide what to do with that controversial proposal, updating the state’s school bus fleet will remain a priority, Zais said. He is asking the Legislature for $34 million for new buses in the state’s 2013-2014 budget, which takes effect July 1, and hopes to announce another major purchase of buses next year.

“Every dollar that we save in transportation is a dollar that can be redirected to the classroom,” he said.

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658

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