Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed several items in the General Assembly's approved budget, including a provision allocating $28.9 million to start replacing decades-old school buses that give the state the infamy of operating the oldest fleet in the nation.
McMaster explained that the funding, which came from projected lottery sales and unclaimed lottery prizes, would instead go toward college scholarships for South Carolina residents. He said the uncertain nature of the propsed funding solidified his decision to veto the school bus money, stating that “allocating funds before they are certified and available for use is not a responsible budgeting practice.”
The South Carolina legislature meets from January to June and is now out for the year; the budget takes effect Aug. 1. Ryan Brown, DOE’s chief communications officer, said the legislature's only chance at securing the school bus funding for the coming school year would be to hold a special session within the next couple of weeks and override the veto. But, he added, there is only a 50 percent chance of that happening. By the time legislators return to session next January, it will be too late to get the new buses needed for the 2018-2019 school year.
Since 1950, South Carolina has owned, maintained and fueled its own school buses, as well as trained and certified district bus drivers statewide. Only Charleston contracts out student transportation service. The state fleet currently consists of just under 5,600 buses that accrued more than 82 million miles in 2015.
The focus, and what the $28.9 million was to fund, is replacing model-year 1995 and 1996 school buses. There are currently 900 of these buses, and 791 buses that are even older, being used to ferry South Carolina children to and from school. But the normal replacement cycle was interrupted by the 2008 recession and, since, slowed by the increase of school sizes, says Molly Spearman, the state's Superintendent of Education.
A 2016 report provided by Spearman details the hazards these older buses have also been posing. Type D, rear-engine school buses are especially problematic. The study cites fuel inefficiency, structural concerns, engine problems, overheating, and numerous fires, which prompted Spearman's call for an accelerated replacement cycle.
The South Carolina Department of Education also found that operating school buses made in 1995 or earlier costs $0.49 per mile, while operating newer buses costs only $0.23 per mile. The agency stressed that a “newer fleet reduces overall and recurring operating costs.”
According to Brown, the cost “to replace all the 1995/1996 school buses that have been problematic would be $72.3 million.” Used in addition to a recurring $2 million allocated for a lease-to-purchase program of 118 buses each year, the $28.9 million would have paid for almost 300 new buses, cutting the number of 1995 and 1996 school buses on the road to 484. After the veto, about $8 million is still available for school bus replacement.