Twenty-nine S.C. students in Greenville County were evacuated from their school bus last week when it caught fire — now one of more than a dozen cases of S.C. school buses catching fire since 2015.
To address the problem, the S.C. Department of Education wants lawmakers to commit $70 million more in the state’s 2018-19 budget to help replace the oldest and most fire-prone buses.
But one S.C. lawmaker thinks he may have a better solution to the state’s chronic problem.
“We need to go ahead and privatize these school buses so that they can be modernized and brought up to date,” said Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. “But it needs to be away from state government.”
If Gilliard’s proposal becomes law, the state no longer would be responsible for providing transportation for the state’s more than 350,000 students who ride the bus to and from school. Instead, districts would be responsible for figuring out transportation on their own, taking on higher costs of running a bus fleet.
School districts now have the choice to opt out of the state school transportation system and contract with a private company. For example, the Charleston County School District contracts with Durham Schools Services.
South Carolina owns and maintains its school bus fleet.
Today, about 1,347 of the state’s more than 5,080 school buses — many built in the mid-1990s — need to be replaced.
Aside from the buses that have caught fire — in some instances with children inside — the state’s education department has found it difficult to find spare parts for its oldest buses, an official said.
Lawmakers adopted a plan in 2007 to replace the state’s school bus fleet every 15 years. But the state Legislature has not kept that promise, falling short of spending the money needed to keep up with the replacement cycle.
Officials say it takes about $34 million a year to replace enough buses to comply with the 15-year replacement cycle.
Proposal faces hurdles
Gilliard is not the only lawmaker to raise privatizing school transportation as a way to solve the problem of the state’s aging school bus fleet. However, none of the lawmakers’ proposals have gained much traction.
Gilliard proposed similar legislation years ago but it went nowhere.
Students and districts, especially cash-strapped rural ones, could lose out if districts have to hire a company to run its school bus fleet, critics of privatizing said.
“School districts in the state likely will be forced to channel more money into school bus transportation to the detriment of classroom instruction,” said an S.C. Association of School Business Officials’ letter against privatization in 2012.
Ryan Brown, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, said the agency is open to discussing privatizing the school bus fleet.
However, any legislation, he said, would have to ensure the state’s less affluent, rural school districts are provided the same access to school bus transportation as the state’s more urban, wealthier school districts.
Gilliard said now is the time to have that discussion. “Don’t wait until a tragedy comes to make a drastic change.”