Charleston school bus drivers concerned with bus maintenance; officials say buses are safe

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Some Charleston County school bus drivers say unsafe buses are putting students’ lives in jeopardy, but officials say they don’t allow dangerous buses on the road.

Both sides agree that the state needs to buy more new buses. South Carolina has the nation’s only state-run bus fleet; it also is the oldest in the country.

“It’s really awful,” said Mount Pleasant school bus driver Kimberly Law. She said school buses would be “shut down in a heartbeat” if they went through the same inspections as the semi-trucks she used to drive.

Durham School Services has a contract with Charleston schools to employ its bus drivers and manage its routes.

Durham invited about 100 drivers from the Mount Pleasant area to a meeting Thursday to discuss their concerns, and about 20 came to Cario Middle School to do so.

The drivers’ biggest gripe involved maintenance of the buses. They said they have documented and reported safety problems, but those requests are ignored.

“We have buses that need to be off the road in the state of South Carolina,” said Iris Williams, who has driven a bus for 17 years in Charleston. “We’re concerned about the health of our children and our health.”

The state is responsible for bus maintenance except in Mount Pleasant, where it has pilot-tested a privatized bus-maintenance shop. The state hired General Diesel, a North Charleston company, in March 2008 to take care of the service for the 89 buses in East Cooper.

Ron Hallam, president of General Diesel, said the buses go through state-mandated safety checks every six weeks, and they also undergo annual safety inspections that involve nearly 150 points, from the tire tread to lights to blinkers.

“The buses, per the state guidelines, are rigorously inspected for those safety things,” he said. “Now, there are some things that can go wrong and that are annoying, but that’s not necessarily safety related. We make sure every single bus that’s on the road is compliance with every safety requirement the state puts on us.”

Jeep White, the vice president and general manager for General Diesel, gave the example of a recent issue that has cropped up — bus heaters breaking. Although the shops try to repair those problems as soon as possible, the state doesn’t require heat for a bus to be in service, he said.

The shop often is inundated with bus repairs, and any issue involving safety or that would take a bus out of service takes priority, White said.

“We have a daily workload that we plan, and then that changes due to emergency breakdowns,” he said.

Durham leaders met with General Diesel managers about the drivers’ concerns, and White said they were going through each of the 12 involved buses to see whether a complaint was valid and whether it had been fixed.

Local Durham officials deferred comment to their corporate communications office in Illinois, and public relations manager Blaine Krage said “under no circumstances is an unsafe bus allowed to be used for service. If a critical matter is identified, then that bus will come off the road.”

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has advocated for new school buses, and he announced in December the purchase of 342, the first since 2008. Jay W. Ragley, the state education department’s deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs, said bus shops statewide occasionally experience flare-ups in the number of breakdowns, and that’s happening in Charleston.

“We’re trying to remedy the situation, but ultimately, this is a symptom of having the oldest fleet in nation,” he said.

Curt Norman, Charleston’s director of transportation, said all of the 22 buses the district received from the most recent bus purchase are for special-needs students, and that’s not enough to solve the district’s aging bus woes.

“Everybody is put in a difficult position because of the age of the fleet,” he said. “The problem is the buses are old and not being replaced in a timely manner.”

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