New buses

number of state-owned buses: 5,023 (as of Aug. 31; does not include spares).number of new buses: 342, or 6.8 percent of the fleet.New buses locally: 10 in Berkeley County; 22 in Charleston County; 13 in Dorchester County. Each county has already received five. cost per bus: $82,030.Total purchase: $28,054,260.Funding: 88 percent lottery funds; 12 percent general fund.Model Years Replaced: 1984-1987, some 1988.Fuel Efficiency Increase: 29 percent. Current average mpg is 5.8; expected to increase to 7.5 mpg.

Some of the buses that carry South Carolina’s students to school each day are nearly 30 years old, have logged more than half a million miles and are prone to breakdowns.

“I wouldn’t want my children to ride in a car that old and rickety but yet I let them ride the bus,” said Heather Langley of Goose Creek. “I worry about it, but I don’t have any other choice.”

Now many of those buses are headed for the scrap-metal pile as the state is adding new buses to its fleet for the first time since 2008.

“Today marks the first step in modernizing the nation’s oldest school bus fleet,” said state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais in announcing the purchase of 342 new buses.

The buses will replace those from model years 1984 to 1987 and some from 1988.

“Transporting students safely to and from school is a priority for the department and school districts,” Zais said. “These buses are more fuel-efficient, less expensive to maintain, and are equipped to transport students with disabilities.”

Since Thanksgiving, 126 new buses equipped with lifts and spaces for wheelchairs have been delivered, including five each in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.

“A lot of the older buses were special-needs buses because they are harder to replace,” said Wes Fleming, director of transportation for the Berkeley County School District.

The buses already have been put into service, swapped out for others that were either moved to the state’s spare-bus fleet or sold for scrap, Fleming said.

“It’s pretty exciting to get new buses,” he said. “It’s been a long time. Any time we can make the ride a little better for the kids, it’s a good thing.”

The rest of the new buses should be delivered in January, said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley.

The buses cost $82,030 each for a total of $28,054,260. Nearly 90 percent of the money came from lottery funds during the current and last fiscal years, mostly from unclaimed prizes. In 2011, legislators noted that a state law requiring unclaimed lottery money to go toward buses hadn’t been followed since 2006.

The remaining $3.5 million was collected partly through selling decommissioned buses for scrap, Ragley said.

South Carolina operates the only state-run bus fleet in the country, and it’s also the oldest in the nation, with the majority of the buses more than 15 years old, according to the state Department of Education.

A 2007 investigative series by The Post and Courier revealed the state’s buses are also the most polluting and least safe in the nation.

“South Carolina didn’t earn the distinction of operating the oldest bus fleet in the nation overnight,” Zais said. “And this issue won’t be fixed overnight.”

He also has requested $34 million for school-bus purchases for next year.

In 2007, the state established guidelines that call for buses to be replaced after 15 years, which was to have created a cycle of replacing about 375 buses annually at $36 million per year. That year, legislators put $40 million in the budget to buy 529 buses, but since then the mandate has gone largely unfunded.

The state has turned instead to buying used buses from other states, including 85 buses averaging 18 years old from Kentucky in 2010 and two dozen buses averaging 11 years old from an Alabama auction in January 2011.

The new buses are arriving as the Legislature is looking at privatizing school bus operations by handing them over to the districts. The South Carolina School Bus Privatization Act of 2012 currently is in the Senate Committee on Education.

Charleston, Beaufort and Dorchester District 2 already use drivers hired by contractor Durham School Services, but the buses and maintenance facilities still are state-run.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.