It's odd how this works: The S.C. Legislature voted to double the money its members receive for expenses like traveling around their districts. But it refused to allocate the money necessary to replace old school buses that children across the state travel on every school day.
Indeed, the 2014-15 budget allocates a little more than half the money S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais says is needed to replace aging buses. He asked for $34 million. The General Assembly has allocated $18.1 million.
That's worse than last year, when Mr. Zais requested $34 million to replace buses and the legislation appropriated $23.5 million. And this year, the Legislature had more money in the capital reserve fund to spend.
Every year that the General Assembly fails to adequately fund the bus replacement program, the picture gets uglier. And it's already plenty ugly:
? Of the 5,505 buses owned by the state, 3,331 are more than 15 years old. That's more than 60 percent of the fleet.
? 90 buses are more than 26 years old.
? 1,127 are 21-25 years old.
? 2,114 are 16-20 years old.
That's not all. Only 344 are five years old or newer and under warranty.
? 507 are 11-15 years old.
? 1,323 are between 6 and 10 years of age.
As Mr. Zais told the Senate Finance Committee, "I don't expect that many of you are driving a car that's over 15 years old. But if you are, you understand that it's not very fuel efficient and is expensive to maintain. Replacement bus engines, for example, cost about $20,000."
Older buses also produce more emissions and are more likely to break down, require maintenance and get children to school late.
No place in the country has a fleet of school buses as old as South Carolina's. But that didn't stop the General Assembly from allocating only $6.5 million for maintenance when Superintendent Zais said $11.95 million is necessary. And he said the annual cost of maintenance is actually $66.3 million.
South Carolina law calls for maintaining a bus fleet no older than 15 years of age. To get there would take $273 million. Each bus costs about $82,000.
The Legislature is simply shirking its responsibility to maintain a bus fleet that is safe and efficient.
Gov. Nikki Haley agreed to the General Assembly's allocation for school buses in the new budget. That is a change. Last year she sought no money for buses because she advocates privatizing the school bus fleet. She wanted to see the state sell its buses by 2017 and let districts handle their own transportation programs.
Mrs. Haley has said she still favors privatizing school buses. South Carolina is the only state to own its own statewide fleet.
But so far her privatization efforts haven't gotten anywhere.
The Legislature needs to do better next year. Either find a fair way to privatize school buses or step up and fund the state's own fleet adequately.
Doing less is not fair to students or schools. The Legislature is shortchanging public education by failing to follow the very rules for school bus replacement that it imposed.
That certainly suggests that legislators are not as concerned about improving public education as their frequent pronouncements indicate.
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