During a recent hearing of a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Jim Merrill stated, “We are the only state in the country that fully owns and operates its bus system and it’s not because we are on the cutting edge of this issue.”
While that may be a blunt assessment of our state’s current situation, it is most certainly accurate.
The S.C. House of Representatives recently debated legislation that would have decentralized the state school bus system currently operated by the state Department of Education.
After vigorous debate, the bill was amended to create a study committee that is charged with determining the pros and cons of pursuing decentralization.
The inadequacy of our current aging bus fleet is legendary. Buses are breaking down, catching on fire, utilizing antiquated parts, and vehicles more than 20 years old are the norm.
And most embarrassingly, we have made the purchase of used buses from other states that do not conform to South Carolina specifications commonplace.
We can do better, and many of our elected officials recognize that fact.
Within hours of its introduction, House Bill 4610 gained over 40 sponsors because it would allow our state and cash-strapped school districts to:
¦Upgrade their fleets with newer buses by taking advantage of authorized private sector participation so the much-needed capital can be invested back into education. A younger fleet sharply reduces maintenance expenses due to expired warranties and takes advantage of improved vehicle design relating to fuel efficiency, emission standards and other student safety features.
¦ Reduce noxious tailpipe emissions by as much as 90 percent vs. the older buses now in service resulting in an improved environment.
¦ Take control of their student transportation function, eliminate waste and inefficiencies, and run a modern, safe transportation system.
The introduction of competition holds the promise of outside investment by private companies seeking to participate, and opens up numerous transportation contracting options for all school districts.
In effect, the legislation would provide school districts with three paths:
1) Contract with a private company to provide full service, including all buses, drivers, maintenance, fuel and insurance. The school district would set policy, monitor performance and would have complete control of the contract
2) Contract with private companies for a portion of services. The buses and maintenance would be operated by the private partner, while school districts would retain the drivers as district employees and house the buses on district property
3) Self-operate and run the bus system themselves. Under this model the school districts would acquire the existing bus equipment from the state at no cost, and assume responsibility for operation and replacement of those buses. The legislation excluded school districts that choose to operate their own bus system from the 15-year maximum age that applies to private companies.
Privatizing and decentralizing school bus transportation is a win-win for South Carolina — and the legislation that was debated by the House addressed that possibility.
It is my hope that the proposed study committee will put aside the petty turf wars that threaten the safety of our school-age children, and seriously consider this opportunity for a partnership with the private sector.
Opening up the system to private companies lowers cost through competition, provides reliable transportation for school districts, and injects much-needed new capital that can rid our wonderful state of the dubious distinction of running the oldest school bus fleet in the United States.
Jason Moyer is director of business development for Student Transportation of America’s Southeast Regional office on Daniel Island.