Columbia -- Eight bus contracting companies say it's possible to privatize the state's struggling school bus system over the next several years in a way that will provide new school buses and not cost the state more money.
At Gov. Nikki Haley's request, companies from around the nation submitted information this month on how to get the job done.
Members of Haley's office said they will look over the proposals once the special session ends later this month, then start working to build consensus among lawmakers, the state Department of Education and the school districts on what they would like to implement.
The most detailed report comes from Student Transportation of America, North America's third largest school bus contractor, whose CEO, Denis Gallagher, is a campaign contributor of Haley's.
Gallagher, who recently moved to Daniel Island and set up shop in Charleston, writes in the report that South Carolina is spending above the national median amount for school transportation because of a bloated bureaucracy of bus supervisors, administrators and maintenance workers, trying to keep the oldest-in-the-nation bus fleet on the road.
Gallagher thinks the state could gain the use of new buses and get out of the bus maintenance business without spending more.
"We believe there is ample money in the state budget to fund an operation of newer buses, superior maintenance, with no diminution of basic driver compensation," the report reads. To make that happen, the company recommends a phase-in plan that would take effect statewide in about three to four years. It calls for:
Splitting the state's school districts into geographic groups. Each group would choose a private transportation company that would buy the state-owned buses and buy or lease the state-run garage shops where their buses are repaired. The companies would replace the old buses with new ones and assume responsibility of bus operations in the districts. Most bus drivers and mechanics who work in the garage shops would keep their jobs but be employed by the private companies instead of the state or school district.
In order to substitute for the loss of state-provided buses, fuel and maintenance, school districts that privatized would receive more state aid. The state would get the additional money from the selling/leasing of the garages. There would also be cost savings to the state because it would not have to maintain and repair the old bus fleet. The new level of state aid would be frozen with no future increases. "Overall, state costs would remain the same or less, and not increase for future years," reads the report.
The transition would start as a pilot project and eventually spread to the entire state. Districts could seek bids for the operation of their buses' system or decide to have their own self-operation of buses.
Many of the eight companies agreed on certain aspects of how privatization should be done, including the use of computerized routing software to identify the most efficient bus routes, the changing of bell times at some schools to increase bus route efficiency, and the use of multiple private companies vs. one statewide company to increase competition for the work.