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South Carolina's most flammable school buses are finally off the road

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School Bus Fire (copy) (copy)

A burned school bus is shown Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Spartanburg. Authorities in South Carolina say more than 50 students escaped without injury after the school bus they were riding caught fire. Melissa Robinette, a spokeswoman for a Spartanburg school district, says the driver then parked the bus, helped students evacuate and then arriving firefighters put out the fire. Alex Hicks Jr./The Spartanburg Herald-Journal via AP

Superintendent Scott Turner will never forget the sight of a school bus in flames.

Fifty students from his Upstate school district, Spartanburg District 5, were aboard when a faulty heater caused a fire on a 22-year-old bus in May 2017.

No students were harmed but the terror of that morning pushed him to action.

At the time of the fire, South Carolina lawmakers had repeatedly broken their own promise to replace the state's outdated bus fleet, including the 1995 and 1996 models that were most prone to electrical fires and other "thermal events," in the dry parlance of state bookkeeping.

Turner began traveling to Columbia to plead with state lawmakers for his students' safety.

Finally, in December 2018, he got a piece of cheerful news: Officials in State Superintendent Molly Spearman's office announced that by New Year's Day 2019, every last one of the buses from those two fire-prone model years would be sent to the scrap yard and replaced with a new one.

"I think it’s good news, but I think it’s long overdue," Turner said. "I think it’s like a lot of things in our state: They had to have a crisis before they acted on it."

Prompted in part by the haunting images of the Spartanburg 5 bus fire, state lawmakers took action in 2017 and 2018. The General Assembly appropriated $14.4 million worth of recurring and non-recurring funds in to purchase new buses in the current fiscal year. The state kicked in another $20 million in lottery revenues to buy more than 200 buses after lawmakers overrode a veto from Gov. Henry McMaster in January 2018.

With dozens of new buses being delivered by manufacturers every week, Spearman's office now reports that there have been no fires or thermal events reported since the May 2017 incident in Spartanburg 5.

S.C. school bus fleet long overdue for replacement

The decrepit condition of the state's 5,600-bus fleet, one of the only state-owned fleets in the nation, is not news at this point. A 2007 Post and Courier investigation found more than 100 fire-related incidents on the state's school buses between 1996 and 2006 and also determined that its buses were among the most polluting and least safe in the nation, thanks to years of chronic underfunding for replacements. Between 2007 and 2017, the state recorded an additional 77 thermal incidents.

The Legislature passed a 2007 law requiring the replacement of all school buses in the state on a 15-year cycle — and then almost immediately broke their own law, failing to allocate enough money to replace one-fifteenth of the buses in 2008.

Hundreds of fire-prone school buses in South Carolina can now be replaced. Here's why

Today in Turner's district, buses are still on the road from 1988, making them older than some of the students' parents. The state still owns 432 buses from that model year.

Turner said the constant breakdowns and maintenance issues on the older buses mean that some drivers have had to double up on their routes. As a result, students have longer rides and occasionally arrive tardy at school. The district has begun buying its own buses to supplement the state fleet, particularly for special needs students.

In her budget request for the next fiscal year, Spearman has asked for $5 million in recurring funds and $40 million in non-recurring funds for bus replacement. Some of the non-recurring funding could come from the state's $33.9 million portion of the landmark Volkswagen pollution settlement, which is set aside for the replacement or reducing toxic emissions.

Part of Spearman's budget request would go toward adding 71 buses in Charleston, Horry, Greenville, Lexington, Richland, Spartanburg and York counties, all of which have seen significant growth in student populations.

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

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