Proposal would hand SC school bus systems to districts

gnsmith@thestate.comMarch 19, 2012 

— S.C. school systems are fearful they are about to be handed a bill for tens of millions of dollars by the S.C. Legislature.

That bill, they fear, could start coming due this week as S.C. House members begin work on a proposal to require the state’s school districts to operate their own school bus systems or contract those operations out to private companies.

Currently, South Carolina is the only state in the nation that owns and operates its own school bus fleet. That fleet, all agree, is in pitiful shape. The average bus is about 14 years old and has more than 200,000 miles.

Advocates say getting the state out of the school bus business will benefit both the state – in over its head, running a massive bus system – as well as the local school districts, who will gain control over bus routes, bus stops and get new buses. It also will get the state out of business that it has no business being in.

“For the state, it gets us out of the bus business that we’re running so poorly right now. There will be big savings in efficiencies for the state,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, the bill’s primary sponsor. “For the school districts, they get more local control. They can sit down with a bus company and work out the details of a bus system that works for their specific district.”

Gov. Nikki Haley supports privatizing the bus system and outlined a plan to do so in her executive budget. Her office says she is in “broad stroke” agreement with Merrill’s bill but has not been involved in working on its details.

But some school districts are crunching the numbers and say they cannot afford the change.

‘Why do we need to change?’

School districts – looking into a future of ever-higher fuel and vehicle costs – fear the state’s contributions to school districts will not keep up with their rising costs.

Earlier this month, the Florence 1 school board passed a resolution, opposing Merrill’s privatization bill.

School board chairman Porter Stewart said Friday it will cost his district about $10 million to buy new buses and about $6 million a year to operate a bus system.

“It’s a lot of money and, of course, there’s no guarantee this doesn’t become an unfunded mandate or a not-fully (paid),” Stewart said.

Also late last month, Horry County school board members expressed concern the proposal could cost their district about $39 million to buy a bus fleet and another $16 million a year in operating costs, according to media reports.

The school bus system cost the state more than $112 million to operate two years ago, the most recent cost figures available. School districts collectively pitched in an additional $138 million.

Under the privatization proposal that House members will begin work on this week, the state would continue to put the same amount of money into the bus system, giving it to local school districts who could operate their own bus systems or contract with private bus systems to buy and maintain buses as well as operate bus routes.

Initially, the state is likely to send even more cash to the school districts to help with the transition, Merrill added.

But it’s an unnecessary change, Florence 1’s Stewart said.

“Nobody has brought to my attention that we’re having major problems with our (Florence 1) bus system. Why do we need to change that which is working very well at the local level?” he asked. “We haven’t asked for this change. We don’t need this change.”

The privatization idea is part of Republican mantra that the private sector is more efficient and, thus, less expensive than government-operated endeavors. But questions remain about whether privatization actually saves money.

A three-year study, released last summer by the state Department of Education, found it cost the state more in time and money to privatize a school bus shop than it had to run a state-owned shop. However, state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican, dismissed those results, saying the private company involved lacked the experience needed.

‘A starting point’

Concerns that privatization is a way for the state to cap its costs and hand the responsibility for future higher costs to local schools and taxpayers extend beyond the Florence 1 and Horry County school districts, said Scott Price of the S.C. School Boards Association.

“Several districts are very concerned about the state punting it down to the local level and not providing adequate funding,” he said.

Price said small districts and rural districts would be hit hardest. “Some districts are not going to be equipped to handle the costs of maintenance shops and new buses,” he said.

But Merrill counters it is still early in the process, and his proposal bill can be amended to handle any concerns. For example, several, small districts could ban together to form a consortium, making a private bus system more affordable.

“It’s disappointing to see some already working against the bill,” Merrill said. “We’re trying to work with everyone on this. Let’s first see how the bill needs to be amended and work together on this.”

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said any savings at the state level would be shared with school districts.

“This bill is a starting point. No one should get hung up on any language in the bill,” said Bingham, a former Lexington 2 school board member. “Unless the districts buy in and take ownership of this, it will not happen. But I would think they would want this. It’s more local control. And there will be savings at both the state and local level. No one is interested in passing on a lot of costs to districts.”

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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