Reject tax hike for school buses

South Carolina public school buses at a lot on Azalea Avenue in North Charleston in 2005. (Wade Spees/Staff)

If children are to be well educated, they need good schools and a safe way to get to them. But the state Legislature has failed on its school bus obligations over the years.

That appears to be improving, however, with an increased allocation this year and possibly even more for the next fiscal year. The Charleston County School Board should keep that in mind before endorsing a staff proposal to start the ambitiouis task of purchasing a local school bus fleet.

That plan would require a local tax hike — on top of the one sought by school officials for increased operational expenses.

The school bus tax appears to be one tax hike too many, and here’s why:

Next year’s House budget includes $28 million for new school buses. That’s better than the $24 million for the purchase of several hundred new buses statewide for the current year.

So while the state isn’t getting the $34 million a year it needs to eventually bring the school bus fleet up to standard, the Legislature is doing a better job.

And legislators should be encouraged to do even better. Indeed, their constituents should demand that they meet the strictures of a law they passed in 2007 to replace the school bus fleet every 15 years — one-fifteenth of the fleet each year.

If the Legislature abided by its own law, CCSD wouldn’t feel pressed to buy its own school bus fleet.

At present CCSD uses state-owned buses for the bulk of its fleet of more than 400 and contracts privately with Durham School Services for 126. The average age of state-owned buses here is more than 16 years.

So it is no surprise that district staff receives frequent — and loud — complaints when buses break down or they aren’t in the best condition. But some of the complaints cited by district officials — non-functioning windows and dirty vehicles — shouldn’t require CCSD to buy new buses.

At present CCSD is without a permanent superintendent. A change of this magnitude needs wise guidance from permanent leadership.

And let’s not forget the dubious decision by CCSD staff to seek this $6.2 million tax increase at the same time it wants a $22.4 million increase for school operations.

That $22.4 million tax hike is already causing some grumbling because it is not, so far, accompanied by any spending cuts. Even those who understand that it costs more to educate all the additional children who are moving into the district would like reassurance that their tax dollars are being carefully managed.

And while the district is right to look for a way to address the school bus problem, doubling up on what Charleston County residents pay isn’t the best answer. Local taxpayers already are paying state taxes to buy state school buses. Residents should demand that their represetatives and senators do their job and provide safe, efficient public school transportation.

At the least, the School Board would be remiss not to see what happens in Columbia before deciding to pursue a $6.2 million tax hike to buy new buses. School board members probably have enough to do vetting the staff’s proposal to increase taxes for other areas of school operations.