It would be easy to dismiss all these warnings about school bus safety as little more than a bunch of disgruntled drivers angling for a better contract.
That would be the cheapest thing to do, obviously.
It would also be the wrong thing to do.
On Monday, several bus drivers said that Durham School Services — which provides bus service for Charleston County schools — isn’t keeping up with maintenance on its aging fleet. Buses break down, these drivers say, their heaters don’t work, they have to cannibalize parts off old buses to keep older ones running.
All of that is true.
“I think their concerns are legitimate,” says Charleston County School Board member Michael Miller, who led a subcommittee studying district transportation issues.
And, as Miller says, who better to report on the condition of the buses than the people who drive them every day?
But this is a clear case of legitimate concern/wrong boogeyman — because Durham isn’t necessarily the problem here.
The state is.
Right now, there are more than 450 buses running Charleston County roads, moving public school kids around. Durham owns only about a quarter of them.
And under contract, they aren’t permitted to work on the state’s fleet.
And the state’s fleet stinks.
Last year, then-state Superintendent Mick Zais basically begged the Legislature for more money to replace the bus fleet.
That guy didn’t believe in spending money on much of anything, which should tell you something.
Zais had the numbers on his side: the state has 5,505 buses, more than 60 percent of which are more than 15 years old. According to state standards, that is the maximum expected life span of a bus.
Yet right now, the state of South Carolina is sending nearly 100 buses out every day that date back to the Reagan administration.
Why is that? Well, it’s money of course. To keep the fleet on a 15-year replacement cycle, it would cost something like $34 million a year. And the Legislature gave the Department of Education about half that amount last year, and $20 million and change the year before that.
That is a lot of money, and the General Assembly has a lot of things to pay for. But you would think that simple economics would come into play at some point. Surely a bunch of new buses would cut down on the fleet’s dinosaur-choking $66 million annual maintenance budget.
Instead, we struggle along like a third-world country.
It’s gotten so bad that four years ago the state bought two-dozen 11-year-old buses from the state of Alabama to improve our fleet.
Yes, we are taking hand-me-downs from Alabama.
Perhaps an even bigger problem here is bureaucracy and ridiculous red tape.
Even though Durham is charged with operating all the buses in Charleston County, if a state bus full of kids breaks down on the side of the road, they can’t send their own mechanics to fix it.
Instead, they have to report the problem to the state, which then evaluates the situation and determines whether repairs are needed.
How many kids have missed graduation as a result of that big-government malarkey?
And here’s a fun tidbit for the hypocrisy file: the state mandates that Durham’s fleet includes no buses more than 7 years old.
So hope that your kid rides on a bus that says “Durham” on the side instead of “South Carolina.” It could mean the difference in whether she gets home before dinner.
Gov. Nikki Haley has suggested privatizing school transportation, as every other state does. It’s a good idea, but it hasn’t gone anywhere because private transportation company drivers tend to organize.
And of course most state officials believe unions are evil.
Well, what’s really evil is making schoolchildren ride to school on rickety, unsafe buses that are prone to catch fire at a moment’s notice.
And then not allow the company operating the buses to work on them.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard says the state needs to “put up or shut up when it comes to the safety of our children — and I think it’s time we shut up and privatize.”
Otherwise, Gilliard says, one day South Carolina is going to be faced with a horrible tragedy.
And that will cost far more than a bunch of new buses
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.