It happens like clockwork. Every year at budget time, the S.C. Education Department testifies to the Legislature about its critical need to replace school buses. This year, S.C. Superintendent Mick Zais reported that 60 percent of the state's fleet is obsolete.
And while anything could happen this year, it has been just as predictable for the Legislature to fail to allocate enough money to get the fleet up to speed.
No question it's an expensive operation, and South Carolina isn't a wealthy state. Dr. Zais has requested $34 million to replace 414 buses. It would take $273 million to replace all the buses that are 15 years of age or older.
But beyond that, the state's school transportation system - the only one in the country whereby the state owns the fleet - is not working.
Using buses more than 15 years old is expensive. They are less fuel efficient. They break down more often. And repairing them often requires finding parts that are no longer manufactured.
Most importantly, they are less safe for students and drivers.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford, Gov. Nikki Haley and Mr. Zais have all voiced support for decentralizing the school bus program, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, agrees, saying that giving districts the responsibility of handling their own bus programs makes sense.
Either way, taxpayers will have to foot the bill, as they do now.
But if decentralization gets the Legislature out of the equation, it is worth serious consideration. That would mean that the Legislature would have to start abiding by its own law, which requires the Legislature to fund bus replacements each year toward adequately updating the fleet in 15 years.
However, the General Assembly has only funded that requirement once since 2007.
If individual school districts were held responsible for their own fleets, they would need assurance that state funding would be forthcoming.
The Legislature is obligated to address the problem of outdated school buses. One possibility would be for the state to make a test case of the Charleston County School District: Send the district the money the state would have spent on transportation for the district under the present system, and let CCSD handle operations.
CCSD already outsources maintenance and operation of school buses. Instead of shepherding 400-500 school bus drivers, it pays one director of transportation and one assistant. Durham Transportation Services handles the operation of a fleet that contains both state-owned and Durham-owned vehicles.
The Dorchester 2 School District has a similar setup. But running the bus program in Charleston County is especially complex because the district includes more choice schools than other districts, and with that choice comes the need to transport students to schools other than those nearby. Also, the district is 100 miles long.
If CCSD were to demonstrate success as a test case despite the challenges here, there is a good chance that the system would succeed elsewhere.
Cost comparisons are conflicting. Dr. Zais contends that outsourcing would save money. Other studies show it would cost more.
But the Legislature hasn't gotten far enough off the dime to obtain solid cost comparisons. And so students continue to travel to school in outdated buses that pollute more, use more gas and break down more frequently.
It's past time for South Carolina's students to have safe, fuel-efficient and less polluting transportation to school.
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