Seventeen S.C. public school buses have caught fire or dangerously overheated since August 2015 – making it the most fiery time for school-bus riders in a decade.
The problem flared up again last week, when a school bus in Duncan caught fire while loaded with students.
School bus fires – an increasing problem among more than 1,000 school buses that the state purchased in the mid-’90s – should be setting off alarms for lawmakers who control how much money the state spends on new school buses each year, the state’s education chief said.
“It had to be a very frightening event,” state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said Monday of the Duncan elementary-school children who fled their burning bus. “We've got to do better for our children.”
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The state’s aging school-bus fleet – at one point declared the oldest, publicly operated bus system in the nation – is to blame, educators say.
But lawmakers also are at fault for failing to budget enough money to replace old buses. In 2007, state lawmakers said they would replace the state’s buses every 15 years, a replacement cycle that they have failed to keep.
Now, the state Education Department says it needs $72 million to replace the buses causing the most trouble. Those buses total about 35 percent of the state’s 5,600 buses.
“This is a top priority for me,” Spearman said. “I called members of the (legislative) leadership last week, again, to remind them for how important it is to give us as much money as possible to get these buses off the road.”
House and Senate budget negotiators start meeting Tuesday, seeking a compromise on the different spending plans that the two bodies have passed for the state’s budget year that starts July 1. Those lawmakers must decide whether to spend between $17 million and $31 million next year on new school buses – the amounts approved by the state Senate and House, respectively.
It will take more — $34 million a year — to replace enough buses to comply with the 15-replacement cycle, Spearman said.
A lot of trouble makers
Parking the buses bought in the 1995-96 school year is the highest priority, Spearman said.
Those buses — including the bus that caught fire last week in Duncan — have engines in the rear. That engine location and other design features make the buses difficult to inspect and repair, education officials say.
The buses also cost a lot of money to maintain – 49 cents a mile for fuel and parts compared to the 21 cents a mile it costs to operate buses purchased from 2013 to 2015, according to the Education Department.
The state bought about 2,100 of the buses more than 20 years ago, the last time lawmakers approved borrowing money for schools.
To replace some of those buses, the Education Department recently purchased 1,086 new school buses.
Of the 1995-96 buses, 1,280 still are operating in the school system’s fleet after the state received about 600 new buses. After the order for new buses if filled, about 900 of the mid-’90s buses still will remain on the roads, said Ryan Brown, an Education Department spokesman.
The state would need $72.3 million to decommission the remaining 900 buses purchased from 1995-96.
Even then, the state would have about 790 aging school buses — some made as long ago as 1988 — on the road, Spearman said. Those buses — with engines located in the front, which have been replaced —are “holding up.”
While waiting to get the mid-’90s buses off the road, the Education Department is installing heat sensors and alarms on the buses to alert drivers before a fire starts.
Deep cuts to buses
State lawmakers adopted a plan to replace all the state’s school buses every 15 years in 2007, after a spike in fires and incidents of dangerous overheating. From 2004 to 2007, there were 34 so-called thermal events on S.C. school buses.
Then, the Great Recession hit.
In the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, the state spent about $35,000 on school buses, according to a Education Department on buses, issued in November. A new bus costs about $80,000.
SC’s aging school-bus fleet
A look at the state’s aging school bus fleet, according to a November report:
82.2 million: Miles the state’s school buses drove last year
15.5 years: Average age of S.C. school buses
5,800: Number of buses in the state’s fleet, including spares and decommissioned buses
49 cents: Cost per mile for fuel and parts to operate a bus that the state purchased in 1995-96
21 cents: Cost per mile for fuel and parts to operate a bus that the state purchased in 2013-15
$34.1 million: Estimated cost of replacing a fifteenth of bus fleet
$31 million: School bus budget approved by the S.C. House for the fiscal year that starts July 1
$17 million: School bus budget approved by the state Senate for the fiscal year that starts July 1
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education
School buses in the Midlands
A look at how many school buses, at least 21 years old, are operating in the Midlands school districts as of February:
Number of buses 21 years or older
Percent of total buses 21 years or older
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education