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South Carolina's 5,680 school buses transport 350,000 students to and from school. More than 1,000 are at least 15 years old — with 517 of them at least 29 years old. Wade Spees/Staff

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said it felt like Christmas, and it’s easy to understand why. After struggling for years to get dribs and drabs of money out of the Legislature to update our 20th-century school bus fleet, her agency received $8 million on July 31 from the Volkswagen pollution settlement to purchase 78 new propane-powered buses.

We can’t think of a better use of money that’s intended to help the state reduce auto pollution. In fact, our question is why the state Insurance Department, which is overseeing South Carolina’s $34 million settlement fund, chose to also give money to Charleston’s regional transit system and the city of Anderson to purchase a total of three public-transit buses.

While our community and our state need more and better public-transit options, it seems hard to beat the environmental return on investment of replacing three-decade-old buses that produce 50 times more pollution than new ones.

We hope that as it distributes the remaining $25 million, the Insurance Department will give serious consideration to awarding all of the money to the S.C. Education Department, where it will not only reduce pollution significantly but also provide a safer mode of transportation for school children and reduce the amount of tax money we have to spend each year on bus operations, since the new buses cost about half as much to operate as the old ones they’re replacing.

South Carolina has had a problem with school buses at least since the Rev. Joseph DeLaine filed suit against the Clarendon County schools for providing buses to white schools but not for black students, in a case that gave birth to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling. In more recent decades, the problem has been less about race and more about money, and priorities.

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Unfortunately, even the entire $34 million VW settlement would barely make a dent in our school bus deficit. In 2007, spurred by findings in the Post and Courier series “School Bus Breakdown,” the Legislature passed a law requiring the entire fleet to be replaced every 15 years — that is, to replace 1/15 of the state’s 5,680 school buses each year — because lawmakers realized they couldn’t keep putting kids on unsafe buses that get them to school late because of frequent breakdowns and spew toxic emissions into the air we breathe.

But lawmakers never funded that mandate, so the fleet continued to age.

They recently began allocating money for bus purchases, but nowhere near the $34 million we would need to spend every year to replace 1/15 of the fleet. And they haven’t even started paying the one-time cost of $54 million it would take to eliminate the 632 buses still in regular use that are 15 to 30 years old — let alone the $42 million it would take to replace all 494 such buses that are used as spares.

There’s nothing wrong with grabbing free money like this when we can get it for the school buses, nothing wrong with the Legislature relying on one-time funding for the buses. It’s even understandable that it will take several years to work down the backlog. But there’s never going to be enough free money out there to get the job done, so the Legislature has to get onto the regular schedule of replacing about 380 buses every year, while also working down that backlog.

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