Another school bus catches fire. Will SC lawmakers act quickly to replace old buses?

The engine of a 23-year-old school bus caught fire Wednesday in the Upstate.

No one was injured, but that fire – and almost two dozen other instances of buses catching fire or overheating since 2015 – could be just the ammunition that S.C. lawmakers need to override a $20.5 million veto by Gov. Henry McMaster when they return to Columbia on Tuesday. That money would help replace some of the state’s oldest school buses.

“I suspect this will be a pretty quick override,” said state Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.

Roughly 350,000 students take state-owned buses to school each day, some riding on buses older than their parents. The S.C. Department of Education has asked McMaster to include about $70 million more in his executive budget proposal for 2018-19 to replace old buses, at a cost of about $80,000 apiece.

Of the state’s 5,080 school buses and 850 spares, about 1,300 were built in 1996 or earlier and need to be replaced. Some were built in 1988.

Replacing the state’s oldest school buses has been a top priority for state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who is up for re-election this year. Her campaign website still features a petition asking lawmakers to override the governor’s veto.

“We know that the 1995 and 1996 buses are problematic,” said Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown. “Fortunately, there were no children on the bus when the bus caught fire (Wednesday). Obviously, that bus has significant damage. The cost of replacing an engine and other parts surrounding it is more than the buses are worth.”

Students an ‘absolute priority’

McMaster’s veto came as a surprise to many lawmakers.

In June, McMaster vetoed $20.5 million to replace some of the 1995 and 1996 buses, arguing that money should not come from the S.C. Lottery.

“That money was raised for one purpose,” the Richland Republican said Friday. “The legislation passed to allow the lottery (was) for one thing – and one thing only – and that is (college) scholarships.”

The Education Department says the $20.5 million would buy 210 new buses, cutting the number of 1995 and 1996 buses in service to 349, requiring about $36 million to replace.

Despite urging from Senate leaders, the House refused to come back to Columbia over the summer to override the governor’s veto, saying it would have been too costly.

But safety of students is “paramount,” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, predicting the two-thirds vote needed to override McMaster’s veto will be there. “For those school buses on the road today, maintenance is certainly a priority and the safety of our students is an absolute priority.”

The governor agrees. But he wants the Legislature to find a more sustainable source to pay for new school buses.

“To tell the people that that money is going to be raised for (scholarships) and then have it diverted to other purposes is against the rules and breaks faith with the people of South Carolina,” McMaster said.

What the governor, education department want

McMaster said Friday he plans to “fully fund” school buses in his 2018-2019 executive budget proposal.

In his budget, McMaster said he has included a $5 million increase for school buses. That would double the dollars that the Education Department gets annually for buses.

The governor also is counting on the state’s share – $34 million – of a nearly $3 billion nationwide settlement with German automaker Volkswagen to buy or lease buses to comply with a 2007 law, which says the state’s school bus fleet should be replaced every 15 years.

Those two moves would cover the cost of replacing all 1995 and 1996 school buses.

Eventually, McMaster said, the state should get out of the business of operating school buses and contract that service out.

Beyond the $5 million increase in McMaster’s budget proposal the Education Department wants:

▪  $8 million in one-time money to buy enough buses to bring the state in line with the 2007 law’s 15-year replacement cycle

▪  Up to $57 million in one-time money to replace all remaining 1995 and 1996 Type D transit buses still in the state fleet

Catching up with S.C. law

Legislators have made an “earnest attempt” to catch up with the 15-year replacement cycle, Simrill said.

That cycle, which would would cost about $34 million a year, is not that unreasonable, said Senate Majority Leader Massey. “If we’re disciplined, we could do that. It’s better than spending $300 million one year buying a lot of buses.”

Not all lawmakers, however, are convinced.

“I don’t believe it’s constitutional to bind the General Assembly (to pay for buses every 15 years),” said state Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens. “We can pass laws like that, but, in reality, they don’t mean anything.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

Where’s the money to replace old school buses?

S.C. lawmakers return to Columbia on Tuesday and could vote quickly to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of $20.5 million to replace the state’s oldest school buses. Even if that happens, the state will need more money to replace buses that are older than 15 years. Where could that money come from?

▪  $70 million: Added money the S.C. Department of Education has requested in the governor’s executive budget proposal for 2018-19 to buy new buses

▪  $34 million: The state’s share of a nearly $3 billion nationwide settlement with German automaker Volkswagen

▪  Privatizing the school bus fleet: Some legislators want to turn over responsibility for buses entirely to school districts, as proposed by state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, in a bill. McMaster wants to privatize school bus operations.