South Carolina will soon put out to pasture many of the oldest and most dangerous school buses in the nation.
In the waning minutes of this year's legislative session Thursday, the Senate voted to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto of a bill that would require the annual replacement of the state's most unreliable school buses. The House overrode the veto earlier in the day.
The long-awaited new law creates a 15-year replacement cycle that provides for the annual purchase of about 375 new buses at a cost of nearly $30 million per year.
Sanford said he expected the override. The governor vetoed the bill late Wednesday, arguing that it would only further entrench a broken bus-management system.
He said the fleet of 5,700 buses is too large for one agency to manage and that the state would be better served by a system that gives school districts more control over their own buses.
He said the replacement plan would merely "paper over" a dysfunctional operation and that lawmakers now will avoid addressing the system's root problems. "Yes, we are trying to make a point," Sanford said of his veto. "Parents will feel happy with the bus that shows up for Junior and you can't have reform in that kind of environment."
South Carolina operates the only state-run bus fleet in the country. Several House lawmakers said Sanford's calls for changing the school bus system have merit and warrant more discussion. But they say the issue of who controls the buses — the state or individual school districts — is separate from the issue of creating a system to regularly replace old
Many supporters of the replacement plan, such as Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, remained puzzled by Sanford's objections even amid their excitement over the bill's passage.
"I thought it was just an incredible accomplishment to get these two bodies to agree that, forevermore, we will commit $30 million a year right up front to buy school buses," said Harrell, R-Charleston. "I was disappointed that he vetoed it. I was very pleased that it was overridden."
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said the General Assembly's strong show of support served as the "silver lining" in Sanford's veto.
"After more than a decade, we finally have a commitment from the Legislature to keep our bus fleet not only functional but hopefully ahead of the curve," Rex said.
In debate on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Bob Walker, R-Landrum, chairman of the House's Education and Public Works Committee and the bill's lead sponsor, said adopting a replacement plan does not preclude the state from overhauling the entire system in the future.
In the meantime, the new law enables the state to begin digging out of a hole of its own making.
A recent Post and Courier investigative series revealed the state's buses are the oldest, most polluting and least safe in the nation.
South Carolina's average school bus is 14 years old, compared with the national average of nine. Some of the state's buses are more than 20 years old and have logged more than 400,000 miles.
Without a replacement plan, state lawmakers historically addressed bus purchases only when the state had surpluses. In tight budget years, no money has been given for new buses. For the past decade, South Carolina has purchased an average of only about 90 new buses per year, roughly equivalent to a 62-year replacement cycle.
Donald Tudor, director of the Education Department's transportation office, said the state's bus fleet was designed with equity in mind when it was created in the early 1950s. Lawmakers realized poor, rural and high-minority districts lacked money to buy adequate buses.
"You have some districts with really top-quality classroom facilities, and other districts still using facilities that are 75 years old in questionable quality for their instruction," Tudor said. "If those poor districts also were responsible for school transportation, you'd see those differences also emerge in school transportation."
In other states, individual school districts mainly are responsible for owning, operating and maintaining school buses.
But many state governments help districts pay for new buses and mandate a bus-replacement schedule to cycle out old buses before they become expensive maintenance nightmares.
Despite the governor's views on empowering individual school districts to manage their own bus fleets, an official at one small district said there's no interest in tackling that responsibility.
If the 3,000-student Jasper County School District were forced to take over its own bus fleet, it would need to buy land, build its own shop and hire maintenance workers, district spokesman Bob Huff said. "It would be a tremendous undertaking for us," Huff said.
Walker said Sanford's office had ample opportunities to offer advice as the bus bill moved through the House and Senate.
Rex also said he assumed the governor's silence indicated that he didn't have any problems with the bill.
Sanford said his position on the school bus fleet has been well known for years and that lawmakers went down a road toward adopting a replacement bill knowing full well that he was not a fan of the current system.
Although Sanford favors decentralizing school transportation, that same philosophy doesn't apply to all of his education-related views.
Sanford has been a major proponent of consolidating some of the state's 85 school districts, with hopes that those smaller districts would operate more efficiently by sharing administrators and instructional resources.
Sanford also cited a recent report on the merits of privatizing South Carolina's bus system in his veto message. But the study noted many of the strengths of a state-run system, including the ease of sharing knowledge across school districts and the buying power generated by having the fleet under one umbrella.
The study says that one hurdle to privatization is the lack of a bus-replacement program.