Christmas arrived a couple of days late this year for the South Carolina Department of Education, which received its first delivery of newly purchased school buses on Dec. 27. Dr. Mick Zais, state superintendent of education, said the department would receive 342 new school buses after all deliveries are completed.
This is the first state purchase of newly manufactured buses since 2008. The state has purchased retired, used school buses from other states at auction in recent years, as those buses are still much younger than some 25- to 30-year-old buses still in operation in South Carolina.
The state is the only one in the nation that operates all of its school buses directly. Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed for either outsourcing all buses to contractor companies or giving individual county school districts the ability to outsource or own and operate fleets in-house. Currently, there are nearly 6,000 school buses owned and operated by the Department of Education for school districts, and buses are required by law to be replaced at least every 12 years, if budget dollars are available.
Parents expressed concern about the safety of riding in older buses when school resumed in September, complaining about the lack of heat and air-conditioning as well as the bumpy rides. A model year 1990 school bus broke down three times in the first month of school, according to one parent.
"State government has heard the concerns of students and parents about the age of the school bus fleet, and today is a tangible milestone as we work towards resolving this issue in the years ahead," said Dr. Zais.
The superintendent thanked the General Assembly for prioritizing funds for school bus procurement in the past two state budgets. He has requested $34 million for school bus purchases in fiscal year 2013-2014.
"Today is an example of how elected officials from different political parties can come together and work towards a solution," he added.
Dr. Zais noted the new school buses are more fuel efficient, less expensive to maintain and are equipped to transport students with disabilities. They will replace all buses from model years 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 as well as some 1988 models. Each bus cost $82,030. The SCDE spent $28,054,260 from lottery revenues, general fund carry-forward monies and proceeds from selling scrap metal from decommissioned school buses.
"South Carolina didn't earn the distinction of operating the oldest bus fleet in the nation overnight," Dr. Zais continued, "and this issue won't be fixed overnight."
In its 2006 National School Bus Report Card, the Union of Concerned Scientists singled out South Carolina for having one of the oldest and highly polluting school bus fleets in the nation.