Fire report draws strong reactions

The Charleston Fire Department's newest truck has a plaque memorializing the nine firefighters who died in the Sofa Super Store fire last June.

Wade Spees

COLUMBIA -- The oldest school buses in South Carolina's fleet carry students with disabilities and lawmakers are trying to set aside unclaimed lottery prizes to renew efforts to replace the costly vehicles, some of which have logged more than half a million miles.

The Senate's $5.8 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year includes $12.35 million for new school buses. Debate on the Senate plan continues this week.

Legislators have not designated money for school buses since 2007, when they approved replacing the statewide fleet every 15 years. That would require buying nearly 380 yearly. The 2007-08 budget included $40 million that bought 529 buses. But the replacement-cycle law has been ignored amid the economic downturn.

A separate law requiring unclaimed lottery money to go toward buses hasn't been followed since 2006. Sen. Gerald Malloy. D-Hartsville, called his amendment, approved in floor debate last week, an opportunity for legislators to obey the law.

"We have to start back on that process of replacing our school bus fleet," said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, a co-sponsor. "We're getting very close to having a real school transportation problem."

The state could buy about 140 buses with the $12 million. The education agency would focus on replacing buses for special needs students, which carry fewer students and include lifts and spaces for wheelchairs, said Don Tudor, the agency's transportation director.

All but five of the state's 201 buses that date from 1984 through 1987 are for students with disabilities. As of July, 26 buses had logged more than 500,000 miles, while an additional 113 had logged between 400,000 and 500,000; all of those are for disabled students, Tudor said.

The director of a group that advocates for children with disabilities said she was unaware that students with disabilities rode the oldest buses, but she's glad to hear legislators are stepping up.

"That to me is an urgent matter, something that can't afford delay," said Jackie Richards of Family Connection of South Carolina.

Nearly 20 percent of all buses that transport special needs students are at least 24 years old.

When a bus breaks down, it's usually one of those buses, Tudor said.