Originally created 08/29/00

S.C. unsafe buses



South Carolina is the only state in the nation that owns its own fleet of school buses. Everywhere else buses are bought and owned by local school systems.

And when you look at South Carolina's problem with school buses you quickly understand why other states do it differently.

Sixty percent of South Carolina's 5,600 school buses are 10 years old and have logged more than 100,000 miles. (That estimate may be generous. Most of Aiken County's 192 school buses are more than a decade old and have 175,000 to 300,000 miles on them.)

To make matters worse, when the state does buy new school buses it pays a third more than other states. This is because South Carolina's bus regulations are tougher, more complex and inflexible than other states.

The regulations even mandate specific engine and chassis designs. Forget competitive bidding because there's only one bus manufacturer that can accommodate that kind of detail.

Here's the peculiar position the Palmetto State has gotten itself in. Its stringent regulations drive the cost of new buses up so high that the state can't afford to buy nearly enough to alleviate the crisis.

As for continuing to maintain the current aging fleet - that's throwing good money after bad. Each repair is more expensive than the one before and it doesn't last as long. A new fleet is way past due, but it's not on the way.

The Legislature this year appropriated only $8 million for new buses - $33 million less than the State Department of Education requested. That's barely a start. To replace the entire fleet would cost at least $243 million.

No one expects the state to come up with that kind of money right away, but clearly much more needs to be done. Children are not safe in many of those buses, says state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley.

Smith is on a new public-private panel named by the state's Education Department to recommend an overhaul of burdensome school bus rules and regulations. As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Smith's role will be vital.

There's no great mystery about what needs to be done. Make the regulations more realistic to bring down the cost of new buses. That's the easy part. The tough part will be to get lawmakers to enlarge the school bus budget.

Smith is already clear about where he stands on that issue. Children are the state's most precious cargo, he says, their safety on the ride to school is no less important than their safety at school.