Charleston County school officials are weighing recommendations for improving the district's outsourced transportation services in response to concerns raised earlier this year about bus safety, cleanliness and the treatment of drivers.
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Among the recommendations made by the School Board's transportation committee are adding monitors on buses so that drivers don't have to deal with misbehaving students, more staff to better manage transportation contracts and services, and exploring replacements for the state's aging bus fleet.
The School Board voted to form the transportation committee in April after mounting pressure from drivers, parents, the NAACP's Charleston branch, state leaders and the Teamsters Local 509 of West Columbia, which represents Charleston County drivers, who spoke out earlier this year in the midst of the board's decision to extend the district's contract with Warrenville, Ill.- based Durham School Services to June 30, 2015.
Drivers and parents have repeatedly raised concerns over Durham since the district originally contracted with the company in 2007. Last year, disgruntled bus drivers threatened to strike before agreeing to a five-year contract with Durham.
Bus driver Evelina Moultrie said there are chronic problems with buses breaking down or simply not starting, as well as a shortage of drivers. Buses run late, she said, which makes students late getting to school.
Moultrie supports adding bus monitors and agrees that new buses are needed, but she said other issues should also be addressed, including better pay for drivers and more mechanics to get buses back on the road faster.
While she appreciates the committee taking a closer look at the issues, she's frustrated there is no clear plan to implement any of the recommendations.
"It wasn't anything that was actually being put on the table," she said.
Parent Corina Mabery, whose daughter rode the bus last school year to Laurel Hill Primary in Mount Pleasant, said her daughter's bus was chronically late and overcrowded. In at least one instance, the bus broke down with her daughter and other students onboard. Mabery said her daughter also complained that her bus was dirty and littered with trash.
Mabery said her daughter told her the driver once slammed on the brakes to get the attention of some rowdy students. The sudden stop, caught everyone aboard by surprise, according to the daughter, causing them to lurch forward in their seats, Mabery said.
In May, eight Charleston County students ages 17 to 19 were arrested on charges that they threw food, rocks and bottles from a school bus at passing cars on James Island.
Mabery said the district needs new buses and monitors might help but that neither is a panacea.
"I think they should use the money to put it toward better, safe, qualified drivers," she said. "Then they might care more about their job and the children."
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, was among those to express concerns about the condition of the county's school buses earlier this year. He wrote a letter to State Superintendent Mick Zais asking him to review the safety records of all school buses in Charleston County. He also raised concerns about Durham School Services.
Gilliard said this week he never got a response from Zais and praised the School Board for moving forward to address parents' and drivers' concerns.
"I think it's a step in a positive direction because it shows they're not going to wait on us," Gilliard said. "I think it's a positive move in the right direction because at the end of the day it's all about the safety of our children."
Michael Miller, a board member and head of the committee, said the committee's talks with Durham already has led to the company increasing bus inspections from once a month to twice a month and is working to make sure "everybody knows who's responsible for cleaning buses."
"The reason for the committee was to address some concerns we were hearing about our transportation services," Miller said. "We want to provide better transportation services."
Miller said one thing that Durham can't address are the maintenance issues on state-owned buses. They can only be repaired by the state. Of the 361 buses Durham uses to transport Charleston County students 249 are owned by the state.
Compounding the issue is the age of the buses. Miller said the average age of a Durham bus is seven years while the average age of a state bus is 19 years.
"We're hoping to ask the state to purchase more buses, allocate more money or get rid of buses over a certain age," he said.
The School Board voted last week to accept the committee's report but stopped short of formally adopting any of the recommendations. Instead school district staff has been asked to report on the costs associated with the proposals and developing a plan for implementing the changes.
Miller has requested the committee continue to meet as a way to address ongoing transportation issues and to push the state for new buses.
"If there's something that's dealing with the safety of our children that's going to take priority," Miller said. "We want to give our children the level of transportation they deserve in the best manner possible.
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.
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