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School bus contractor says bus serving a Charleston middle school exceeded capacity

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A photo of an overcrowded school bus taking students home from C.E. Williams Middle on April 16, 2018, sparked outrage on social media this week. Provided/Angel Johnson

After a photo of an overcrowded school bus with students sitting on the floor sparked outrage on social media, the Charleston County School District's transportation contractor says it is retraining the driver to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Durham School Services spokeswoman Kate Walden said Bus 604 serving C.E. Williams Middle in West Ashley exceeded its capacity Monday afternoon.

"Safety is our top focus," she said in an email Tuesday, "and capacity limits are to be followed by all members of our team."

She added, "This afternoon and tomorrow morning, our supervisor will be riding the route to ensure it runs smoothly and that students are being safely loaded."

Overcrowded buses have drawn the ire of parents in multiple school districts served by different contractors in the past few years, including a fall 2016 uproar in Berkeley County. Durham received a barrage of complaints from Charleston County parents about late and overcrowded buses in the fall of 2015.

South Carolina Code of Laws Section 50-67-100 says the number of students assigned to a school bus must not exceed the manufacturer's certified seating capacity. However, the law allows a limited number of excess passengers for up to 20 school days.

State government funds and maintains a fleet of buses for all public schools. Local school districts often enter contracts with companies such as Durham to provide drivers or additional buses. 

Durham is Charleston County Schools' third transportation contractor in 20 years after previous agreements with Laidlaw Transit and First Student.

Charleston County Schools paid Durham $14.4 million for its services last school year. The district increased its payments for the 2018-19 year by $346,180 to cover cost-of-living pay increases for drivers, and it approved an additional $1.07 million one-time payment in December to install driver-monitoring cameras, part of a nationwide safety push after a Durham driver crashed a school bus on a winding road near Chattanooga, Tenn.

In the 2015-16 school year, the district temporarily withheld 10 percent of its monthly payments to Durham due to chronically late buses. The company blamed the problem on understaffing, which it addressed by upping drivers' starting pay rate from $12 to $13.55 an hour.

So far this school year, about 8,963 hours of instructional time has been lost because of late buses in Charleston County, district staff said. The leading cause of late buses was traffic (68 percent), followed by lack of driver (15 percent), bus breakdown (10 percent) and substitute drivers (6 percent).

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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