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Old and fire-prone: Some SC school buses are as old as students’ parents

Your child could be riding to school in a bus that's been on the road since 1988

Of the 5080 school buses in South Carolina, 400 date back to 1988-1990.
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Of the 5080 school buses in South Carolina, 400 date back to 1988-1990.

The parents of roughly 350,000 S.C. students who ride the school bus every day should not have to be concerned about their child’s safety, state educators say.

But many are.

Why? Hundreds of the state’s school buses are old, with some overheating and bursting into flames.

That is why the S.C. Department of Education has asked the governor’s office for about $70 million more in the state’s 2018-’19 budget to replace the state’s oldest and most fire-prone school buses.

It is also why the state Senate’s leader is ready to start rounding up votes when legislators return to Columbia Jan. 9 to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a proposal that was to — and could still — provide new money to replace school buses.

Of the state’s 5,080 school buses in use daily and 850 spare buses, about 1,347 — some made in 1988 — need to be replaced. At least 17 school buses have caught fire or dangerously overheated since August 2015, in some instances while carrying students.

Since January, the Education Department has put 750 new buses in service, saving money on costly repairs for the older buses, said Mike Bullman, head of school bus maintenance.

The state owns and maintains the school bus fleet. Bullman said the old buses pose two problems: they break down and finding spare parts for aged buses is difficult.

Under its 2018-’19 budget request, the S.C. Department of Education wants:

▪ $5 million a year more for bus purchases, giving the agency $10 million in money every year

▪ $8 million in one-time money to buses, so it can fulfill a planned 15-year bus replacement cycle

▪ Up to $57 million in one-time money to replace all remaining older buses still in the state’s fleet

Whether to override the governor

This summer, Gov. McMaster vetoed $20.5 million in state spending to replace about 250 buses, at about $80,000 apiece. But lawmakers decided not to return to the State House to consider overriding that veto.

However, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, calls a veto override “imperative” when legislators return to Columbia in January.

“Our children are our most valuable resource, and I can’t look their parents in the eye if we aren’t doing everything we can to protect them,” he said.

The Governor’s Office says McMaster has no problem with spending more on buses. But, the governor thinks, bus money should not come from the S.C. Lottery, as legislators proposed. Instead, he wants the money included in the state’s annual budget.

“There is nothing more important to the governor than the safety of our children, which is why he would encourage the General Assembly to pay for important projects like this one with guaranteed funds from a more sustainable source,” said the governor’s spokesman, Brian Symmes.

‘The time to address’ bus funding

The state’s Education Department plans to continue putting pressure on lawmakers to override the governor’s veto.

It also plans to zero in on lawmakers to look for other funding options to keep the state in line with its 2007 mandate to maintain a bus fleet no older than 15 years old.

Replacing the fleet every 15 years would cost around $34 million a year, according to the Education Department.

If lawmakers do decide to override McMaster’s veto, the Education Department says it can buy 210 new buses, cutting the number of 1995 and 1996 buses in service to 349, requiring $36 million to replace.

The Education Department also has asked for about $34 million from the state’s share of a nearly $3 billion nationwide settlement with German automaker Volkswagen at McMaster’s recommendation. That settlement check could get the department 415 new diesel buses, replacing buses older than 1995 and 1996.

“Adequate and reliable funding for buses must be addressed and the time to address it is now,” S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

School bus money

As South Carolina’s school buses continue to age, the S.C. Department of Education wants $70 million more in state money. Here’s where the money could come from:

▪ $34 million, from the state’s share of a nationwide settlement with German automaker Volkswagen

▪ $30 million, from a bond bill still sitting on the S.C. House floor

▪ $20.5 million, from the Legislature overriding Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto

▪ $10 million, in annual money in the state budget to replace buses, up from the current $5 million