Aging school buses, like old cars, spend more and more time in the shop and less time on the road. And despite the best efforts of bus maintenance workers, there is just so much that can be done for ancient buses that would have been retired in every other state in the nation.
It’s another good reason for the state to commit the resources necessary to replace school buses on a regular cycle, instead of allowing them to operate beyond what would typically be considered a functional life.
Local school bus drivers talked about the problems with the aging fleet in the Mount Pleasant area at a meeting last week called by Durham School Services. Durham operates the bus system for the Charleston County School District, using vehicles provided by the state.
“We have buses that need to be off the road in the state of South Carolina,” said Iris Williams, who has driven school buses for 17 years in Charleston County. “We’re concerned about the health of our children and our health.”
Driver Kimberly Law said the Mount Pleasant school buses would be “shut down in a heartbeat” if they were subject to the same standards as the commercial tractor-trailer trucks that she previously operated.
But a spokesman for General Diesel, which has a contract to maintain the buses, insists that they are “rigorously inspected” for mandated safety requirements. If there are issues with the buses, they aren’t safety related.
There are, however, numerous problems. Jeep White, vice president and general manager of General Diesel, says the shop is swamped with repair orders, with emergency breakdowns getting repair priority.
District and state officials speak from experience when they explain that the problems are a function of having the nation’s oldest bus fleet. Indeed, that’s why South Carolina has been in the position of having to buy school buses that other states have discarded.
And the problem goes right to the Legislature, and its skewed budget priorities. Sure, the state has had budget problems in recent years. That is to be expected periodically, depending on whether state revenues are up or down, based on the economy.
But school buses are a regular need and require consistent funding in good times and bad. They should be a legislative priority and accounted for in every single budget cycle.
Public schools shouldn’t have to rely on a bus fleet that requires constant maintenance to remain on the road. That the Legislature funded the purchase of 342 buses in the current year is welcome, if overdue, progress.
The buses that are being purchased this year are the standard front-engine models that cost less than the transit style buses the Department of Education had opted for in previous years.
Some years back, the Legislative Audit Council strongly recommended that the state purchase the less expensive model, to get the most out of limited state dollars. The LAC found no safety issues with the standard model buses.
State Education Superintendent Mick Zais recognizes the hazards inherent in failing to keep the school bus fleet up to date. That’s why he is asking the Legislature for $34 million this year to get back on track.
Buying the requisite number of new school buses shouldn’t be an annual issue for the Department of Education. Getting children to and from school safely is a fundamental responsibility.
The Legislature should make the task routine with adequate, regular budget support.