Politics & Government

SC fire hazard school buses aren’t going away any time soon

Hundreds of fire-hazard school buses will continue to take S.C. students to school this fall.

Midlands school districts have 113 of the dangerous buses – out of more than 1,000 statewide – assigned to bus routes.

The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved spending $20.5 million to replace about 250 of those buses with new ones.

However, state education officials say they cannot order the new buses because Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed the money. Lawmakers are refusing to come back to Columbia to override the veto.

South Carolina’s aging buses are proving to be a fire hazard for S.C. students. Seventeen buses have caught fire or dangerously overheated since August 2015. In some cases, children were on board.

Republican leaders say the S.C. Department of Education could use other money to order buses.

Surplus money could pay for the new buses “before the start of the school year, if it truly were a priority,” S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said Tuesday.

But the state’s schools agency says it already has used money set aside for other purposes to buy new school buses in an effort to park the dangerous buses for good.

Meanwhile, some Democrats are pushing for legislators to return to Columbia to approve spending the money to replace the buses, including state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

“The fleet ... is a legitimate concern for the safety of our children riding these buses,” Smith said.

“We have school this fall, and we have a chance to be prepared for that with safer buses,” he said, adding “It’s a long overdue priority.”

Bus purchases on hold

Lawmakers have no plans yet to return to Columbia to deal with McMaster’s vetoes of the state budget that started July 1.

They could wait to consider budget vetoes when the next legislative session starts Jan. 9, 2018.

“Wasting taxpayer funds and calling the Legislature back into session is not the answer to a problem that has an existing responsible solution,” Lucas, the House speaker, said.

S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, agreed, pointing to $105 million the Department of Education had available last year.

“This problem is efficiently remedied without holding an expensive special legislative session at additional cost to taxpayers,” Simrill said.

But the Department of Education disagrees.

That money already is designated for other uses, including spending at other state agencies and school districts, the agency said. In addition, the money cannot be spent on school buses because lawmakers directed the agency to send those dollars to poor rural school districts that are suing the state.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman also said safety and replacement of the aging S.C. bus fleet has been a top priority since she took office in 2015.

Spearman said she has used all means available to her to purchase 1,424 new school buses, nearly twice as many as required by the Legislature.

“We have purchased 156 new buses from fuel and operational savings just in the past few days and will continue to identify and exhaust all options available to ensure students have a safe means of transportation to and from school,” Spearman said.

The Department of Education has spent $2 million out of its budget that began July 1 to purchase new buses, Spearman spokesman Ryan Brown said. After all the buses under order come in, about 900 of the fire-prone buses will remain on the road, he said.

Lottery money at issue

Gov. McMaster vetoed the school bus money last month, slated to come through a surplus of the state’s education lottery sales. Though often spent on other education expenses, lottery money should be spent solely on the scholarships the lottery was created to fund, McMaster said in his June veto message.

Spending money before it is available “is not a responsible budgeting practice,” he added.

McMaster also said if the lottery makes more money than expected next year, that money should go to pay for future scholarships for S.C. students.

State officials have not yet said how much extra money the state’s education lottery earned in the budget year that ended June 30.

Last year’s lottery surpluses totaled $59.3 million, state officials said, adding this year’s surplus will be announced late next month or in September.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

SC school buses prone to fire

The S.C. Department of Education says roughly 900 fire-prone school buses will remain on the roads after the agency spends all available money buying new buses. A look at how many of those buses are assigned to take Midlands children to and from school as of late June, by school district:

Kershaw – 17

Lexington 1 – 13

Lexington 2 — 14

Lexington 3 — 5

Lexington 4 — 0

Lexington-Richland 5 – 19

Richland 1 — 33

Richland 2 — 12