One of this session’s legislative footballs is funding for school buses. The Senate advanced the ball last week.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to score a clear victory for the students of South Carolina. But it is an improvement, and the House of Representatives should endorse the Senate plan before the session ends.
To do so, the House will have to shift its penurious course as regards the state’s aging fleet of school buses.
The question isn’t complicated: Are legislators — and the governor — willing to put children on school buses that are too old, inefficient and unreliable?
South Carolina has the oldest fleet of school buses in the nation — the oldest ones date from the Reagan era. Two-thirds of the buses are 15 years old or older.
In 2007, the General Assembly took a wise step and passed a law (over Gov. Mark Sanford’s veto) requiring they replace the fleet every 15 years — one-fifteenth of the fleet each year.
That first year, legislators paid heed and replaced that mandated fraction of the fleet, anticipating the same support each year thereafter. It hasn’t happened again.
And while the Senate has improved the picture for school buses next school year, its recommended allocation is still short of what is necessary to comply with the law.
Here’s how out-of-whack the numbers are: Mick Zais, state superintendent of education, has requested $46.1 million for school buses: $34 million in capital reserve funds and $12.1 million in lottery funds.
The House budget provides $10.5 million from the capital reserve and nothing from lottery funds.
The Senate added $12.01 million in lottery funds and $1 million in recurring general funds.
That would replace about 260 buses instead of the prescribed 377.
Every year the state falls behind in the process makes it more difficult to catch up — and puts more children’s well-being at risk.
It is staggering that the Legislature has been willing to take that risk. And it belies the notion that members are really interested in improving education in the state. Before children can begin learning more, they have to get to school safely.
The General Assembly has been supportive of Gov. Nikki Haley’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” mission. Better-educated students becoming a better educated workforce should be an integral part of that mission.
There is still time for the General Assembly to more nearly fulfill its obligation to the state as regards school buses.
The Senate proposal falls short of the Legislature’s 2007 mandate.
But it’s an improvement over the House plan — something the House should recognize when it puts the finishing touches on the budget.