The priorities of our state lawmakers are hard to fathom in many aspects of the budgeting process. But it is especially alarming that they don’t care enough about the welfare of our children to provide them with safe school buses.
South Carolina’s school bus fleet is the oldest in the nation. Two thirds of its buses are at least 15 years old, and that’s despite the addition of 342 new school buses this school year that replaced models up to 28 years old.
In past years, the state has resorted to buying used school buses from other states, including some from Kentucky that were, on average, already 17 years old. In other words, South Carolina bought buses that the people of Kentucky thought were too old for their children to ride in.
A bill passed in 2007 required the state to buy enough new school buses — about 480 a year — to replace the entire fleet every 15 years. But with the economic downturn, lawmakers have simply ignored the law every year since it was passed.
The state Senate’s 2013-14 budget includes a proposal to buy $15 million worth of new school buses. About $2.75 million of that would come from higher-than-expected state lottery sales.
But this barely scratches the surface of the need. Officials with the office of Republican state Superintendent Mick Zais estimate that at least $34 million would be needed to begin a legitimate replacement cycle, and Zais has asked legislators for $46 million in 2013-14.
Old buses have fewer safety features than new ones and tend to break down more frequently. Many of them have no operable heating systems.
School district maintenance crews often have to scavenge for spare parts for the oldest buses. And because of wear and old age, the buses are less efficient and cost more to run.
Granted, maintaining the replacement schedule for buses during the recent recession would have been difficult. But with higher revenues than expected and the state’s economy on the mend, lawmakers have a responsibility to re-address this serious problem and begin to tackle it in a meaningful way.
Allocating a mere $15 million for new buses is well below what is needed to upgrade the bus system. Our children deserve safe, efficient, comfortable buses that will get them to school on time.
What could be more important to the state’s future than that?