Failing school bus safety

Pieces of yield lights hang out of an old school bus that sits in the junk yard at the Beaufort Bus Shop that is used for parts. (Grace Beahm/File)

Charleston County school buses would be safer if monitors were aboard to deal with behavior problems. But the buses would be more dependable if some of the oldest were replaced.

So the transportation committee of the Charleston County School Board concluded after three months of review following complaints that buses were unsafe.

The report should go to the S.C. Legislature, which is partly to blame for the problem.

Year after year, the Legislature underfunds the state's school bus program. Actually, it breaks its own law, which mandates the bus fleet be no more than 15 years old.

Of the 5,505 buses owned by the state, 3,331 are more than 15 years old. That's more than 60 percent of the fleet.

And the 249 state-owned buses in Charleston County have an average age of 19 years. The 112 buses owned by Durham School Services, which has a contract with the district, average seven years.

Further, state-owned buses must be repaired by the state, and the Legislature underfunds bus maintenance as well. Not a good idea since older buses have more mechanical problems.

And every year the state falls short of its bus replacement and maintenance requirements, the program gets in deeper arrears. Then there's the fuel inefficiency of older buses, the elevated levels of emissions from them, the loss of school time for students whose buses are late and the additional cost of repairing buses that need parts that are no longer even produced.

All of these consequences of the Legislature's school bus policy were documented years ago. Lawmakers recognized the problem and approved a law in 2007 to provide for regular replacement of school buses. But their repeated failure to allocate necessary money has undercut improvements.

It's like paying the minimum balance on a credit card, and watching the interest mount, month after month, year after year. It's not a fiscally sustainable model and it doesn't provide for student safety. But it is an example of how the Legislature does business.

Recall that in May, a bill that would allow police officers to write traffic tickets based on video captured by bus cameras was stalled in a Senate committee.

Then a car struck a 15-year-old Gaffney High School student crossing the street to board her school bus. That's when the bill got traction and was enacted.

South Carolina legislators should not wait for a tragedy involving a school bus and possibly multiple injuries before they step up to provide adequate funding.

And that doesn't merely apply to aging school buses. They operate on state roads and bridges, many of which are in a sad state of repair.

Of course, the Charleston County School Board can't wait for the Legislature to take action, even though the district depends on the state for the majority of its fleet.

School trustees have to put into effect those recommendations over which they have control to keep students safer on buses. And then they can keep their fingers crossed for another year in regard to aging buses and crumbling roads.