AIKEN - The aging fleet of cheddar-colored school buses and a wrecker from the 1970s concern Aiken County transportation supervisor Susan Jordan.
"We have a 1974 wrecker that we still use. It was new when I was in junior high school," Ms. Jordan said. "The system isn't broken yet, but we need service vehicles that will be financially supported and buses that can get kids to school on time."
The average age of school buses in the Palmetto State has risen to 12 years, doubling in less than a decade, and transportation officials said there is no funding relief on the horizon.
A proposed House bill would budget $18 million for new buses in 2006, but that's more than a day late and several million dollars short to aid the last state-operated school bus fleet in the nation, some say.
Last month, when 24 of the buses used to transport Aiken County pupils went to the shop for repairs, drivers had to double up routes .
"Ultimately, we need new buses, but we also need new funds to keep the old buses running," said school district transportation manager Maria McClure. "But for now, the problem will only get worse."
Statewide, about 250 new buses were purchased in 2003, barely making an impact on the state's fleet of 5,034 buses. This year, funding for new buses, repairs and skyrocketing fuel costs spell a dangerous road for the South Carolina school bus system, said Jim Foster, the spokesman for the state Department of Education.
"Because we raise the warning flags every year, some politicians may think we are merely crying wolf," Mr. Foster said. "But we hope to show the General Assembly the numbers."
State Rep. Roland Smith, R- Langley, said he is optimistic a House bill will pass that would set aside $15 million in state money and $3 million in South Carolina Education Lottery funds for new buses.
"There has been a bus crisis for a while," Mr. Smith said. "What we truly need is a $40 million a year fund to start a 15-year replacement cycle for buses."
Even if the bill passes, the $18 million will barely cover the shortfall from the 2005 fiscal year, leaving no money for new buses in 2006, said Don Tutor, the director of transportation for the state Education Department.
School districts such as Aiken County are looking at the possibility of purchasing and maintaining their own buses.
"A lot of local school districts have decided that they can't wait any longer and districts have bought 151 buses of their own," Mr. Tutor said. "The state is supposed to provide this - but all this really does is shift the cost from the state to local taxes."
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Carolina's school bus fleet is getting older. The average age of a school bus:
In 1996: 6.7 years
In 2004: 12.3 years
The average mileage of a school bus:
In July 1996: 86,072 miles
In July 2004: 170,000 miles
Source: South Carolina Department of Education Transportation Office