State-owned buses quit 219 times Bus operator, district officials discuss persistent woes since start of school

School buses drop off students from Laing Middle School after classes in Mount Pleasant. Laing has been among the schools plagued by bus issues so far this year.

State-run school buses in Charleston County broke down, on average, nine times per day over the past five weeks. And they were six times more likely to break down than buses provided to the district by Durham School Services.

On Monday, members of the school board’s Transportation Committee met with officials from Durham, which manages the district’s fleet, to review the bus operator’s performance over the past 30 days. That review revealed that buses serving Charleston County schools have broken down 232 times since school started, according to Durham’s committee report. Ninety-four percent of those breakdowns, or 219, involved buses owned and maintained by the state.

“I deal with 100 (customer service centers) in the eastern U.S. and no other state has buses like South Carolina does,” said Greg Newman, director of Durham’s eastern operations. “It’s to be expected once you run a fleet that’s as old as the state’s.”

In South Carolina, the state maintains a fleet of about 5,500 buses for the public school districts. The average state bus is 20 years old, at least 14 years older than the typical Durham bus. The average lifespan of a school bus is just 12 years.

The route that was affected the most by bus breakdowns served Lambs and Hunley Park elementary schools, where there were eight incidents over a four-week period.

On one route serving Hunley Park, there were five bus breakdowns during a single week involving a state bus and a state-owned spare. Durham had to replace the state’s spare with one of its own to avoid further issues.

“If it’s the state’s responsibility to provide buses that are mechanically able to transport our students, then the state’s not fulfilling its obligation,” said board member Michael Miller. “The state has failed in its transportation report card. They get an ‘F.’ ”

Durham plans to roll out a bus tracker app in Charleston County in January that would allow parents to monitor the arrivals and departures of their children’s buses. But constant mechanical problems plaguing the state’s fleet and spur-of-the-moment route adjustments could threaten the app’s accuracy.

“The problem you’re going to run into is what happens if you can’t throw that (spare) bus there and you have to take half the kids and put them on this bus and half the kids on this bus. How do I tell the parents how to track the bus?” said Mike Hamel, a site supervisor for Durham in Charleston. “You don’t normally see those problems in a regular (customer service center) for Durham.”

Under state law, the S.C. Department of Education is required to replace about a 15th of the state’s bus fleet each year with new school buses using funds allocated by the Legislature. This year, the General Assembly appropriated $30.9 million for new school buses in the 2015-16 budget — up from $15 million in the previous budget — which is nearly enough to replace a 15th of the fleet.

CCSD Director of Transportation Curt Norman said he expects the district to receive 10 new buses from the state this spring. But “that’s just a chink in the armor,” Miller noted. The district’s own fleet of 338 includes 249 buses owned by the state.

In August, the school board voted 5-3 to rescind a five-year, $31 million tax levy from the budget for fiscal year 2016, which would have allowed the district to purchase about 300 of its own school buses. Board members who supported the motion felt the public wasn’t given enough notice about the tax increase.

A future tax increase is still on the table, board member Tom Ducker said.

“We have to tell the public, based on the performance of the state buses,” Ducker said, “it’s time to get serious about doing something on our own.”

Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.