When Zoey White fell asleep one day last year during her hour-and-a-half-long bus ride home, she woke up in the wrong place.
“(S)he made it all the way back to the school before they realized she was on the bus,” said Zoey’s mother, Michelle White of Camden. “Isn’t that awful?”
For some S.C. public-school students — including sixth-grader Zoey and her brother Denzel Washington-White, a ninth-grader at the Kershaw school district’s North Central High School — getting to and from school can add up to three hours to their day.
White’s children are not alone.
Nearly 10 percent of the 18,062 routes traveled by the state-owned and maintained bus fleet in the 2013-14 school year exceeded the 90 minutes of one-way travel time allowed by state law, an analysis of S.C. Department of Education data shows.
That snapshot of school-bus routes, on one day surveyed by the state, gives some insight into how long it takes some students to get to school.
Lawmakers are reviewing the long hours some children travel to and from school as part of an effort to answer a S.C. Supreme Court order to improve public education.
Last year, the court found the state has failed to provide children in poor, rural districts – including several that sued the state for more money – with an adequate public education, as required by the S.C. Constitution.
Both the state House and Senate have formed panels to address deficiencies the court identified, which include funding, transportation, teacher quality and other issues.
For the Whites, shorter bus rides would mean more time and energy for studying and sleep, their mother says.
Denzel wakes up at 5 a.m., followed shortly by his sister. Both catch the bus about 6:15 a.m. After they get home – sometimes as late as 5 p.m. – they have homework to complete.
The children’s bus driver is “awesome,” White said. But the traveling leaves them struggling to keep their eyes open. White figures living “in the country” — about 12 to 15 miles away from where her children go to school — is the reason for the long commute.
State law allows bus routes to exceed 90 minutes if the route is long “because of a circuitous or meandering road network, extremely low population density or waterway barriers.”
The clock starts ticking when the first passenger gets on the bus and ends when the last passenger is off.
Of the bus routes that exceeded 90 minutes in 2013-14, nearly 1,000 carried special-needs children to and from school, Tim Camp, the state Education Department’s transportation director, told a panel of educators and state House members Monday.
Sometimes the longer bus ride is necessary to carry a special-needs student across a county to a school that has the type of classroom or service that student needs, Camp said.
That struck a nerve with John Tindal, superintendent of Clarendon 2 school district and a member of the House panel reviewing education policy. “It appears that a lot of the students with the greatest needs are on the bus for the longest period of time.”
The length some children are riding the bus is “deplorable,” state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said last week after hearing similar news at a meeting in Swansea. Setzler said lawmakers must look at ways to shorten the rides students make to and from school.
An answer could be to buy more buses. But that could cost the state tens of millions of dollars. Already, the state, which operates the bus system, faces the high cost of replacing an aging bus fleet.
Asked for the Education Department’s position on lengthy bus rides, state Superintendent Molly Spearman said in an email, “The safe and efficient transportation of our students to and from school every day is a top priority.
“We will continue to work with the General Assembly to review bus routes, safety features, and opportunities to improve the efficiency of our bus fleet,” she said.
The state’s buses are supposed to be replaced every 15 years.
But about half of the state’s more than 5,600 school buses are more than 15 years old and more than 400 are older than 25 years, according to Education Department data.
Funding for the state-owned bus fleet dropped off in the years following the Great Recession but has increased in the last two state budgets. The department’s new bus purchases included 342 buses in the 2012-13 budget year and 530 last year.
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.
Midlands school-bus rides
How long do Midlands’ students travel to and from school? Here’s a look at how long bus rides were one way on a day in the 2013-14 school year that the state surveyed:
- Kershaw: 235 bus trips; 35, or 15 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Lexington 1: 659 bus trips; 40, or 6 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Lexington 2: 261 bus trips; four, or 2 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Lexington 3: 57 bus trips; 28, or 50 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Lexington 4: 112 bus trips; 25, or 22 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Lexington-Richland 5: 484 bus trips; 17, or 4 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Richland 1: 713 bus trips; 24, or 3 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
- Richland 2: 497 bus trips; 72, or 14 percent, exceeded 90 minutes
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education