S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of funding to replace aging school buses hits home for York County school districts, which, like much of the state, are operating decades-old buses.
“Transportation, from the equipment side, has been underfunded by the state for a very long time,” said Bryan Vaughn, Lancaster County School District safety and transportation director.
South Carolina is the only state in the country that operates and maintains its own statewide fleet.
In budget vetoes announced last week, McMaster cut $20.5 million for new school buses, saying that money might not come through because it depends on the S.C. lottery raising more than projected.
Older buses are more expensive to maintain and more prone to breaking down, said Tom Buckley, transportation supervisor for the Fort Mill school district.
“There is always that opportunity when you are out there with an older bus that it can break down, which leads to service failures that can impact students starting their day late,” Buckley said. “When you have buses out on the road that were manufactured in the 1980s, that’s a pretty old bus.”
Fort Mill has 43 buses older than 20 years, said Ryan Brown, spokesperson with the S.C. Department of Education. Brown said buses from 1995 and 1996 are more at risk for overheating and structural problems.
Parents who want to know how old their child’s bus is should note the bus number and call their school district or the Department of Education, Brown said.
Some older buses are prone to fires. The S.C. Department of Education reports that 17 buses have caught fire or overheated since August 2015. State lawmakers say buses should be replaced at 15 years old.
Buckley said state mechanics are actively watching older buses.
“They are here on a daily basis addressing any maintenance that comes up,” he said. “There could be a safety concern with certain buses based on their year and model.”
The average age of state-owned buses in use by the York school district is 15 years, said Tim Cooper, spokesperson for the district.
“If the money would have been approved, it would have potentially moved our fleet to 12 to 14 years old for next year,” he said. “We take what we can get, but prefer to have more.”
York schools have four rear engine buses, two that were built in 1995, Cooper said. York received six new buses this school year.
Cooper said the district works with regional bus service centers provided by the state to ensure they are running smoothly. He said the district has put systems in place to keep radiators clean and reduce the likelihood the bus will overheat.
“We work to do everything we can here to keep students safe,” Cooper said.
In the Rock Hill school district, buses are on average 13 years old and the oldest bus dates to 1988, which is used as a spare, said Mychal Frost, district spokesperson. A 2017 model was delivered earlier this year.
Clover has five 1988 models in its fleet, said Bryan Dillon, spokesperson. The Chester County School District has 27 buses that are 20-plus years old, Brown said.
“Everybody is in the same boat,” Cooper said. “This continues to be a state funding issue.”
The Lancaster school district runs 74 state buses carrying about 6,000 students every day, said David Knight, spokesperson for the district.
Those buses run more than 1.5 million miles every year, averaging 4,600 miles a day, Knight said. He said 12 of Lancaster’s school buses are from 1996 and are prone to fuel leaks that can cause fires.
Knight said those older buses can also have “structural problems in their roofs that could make the top more likely to collapse if the bus overturns.”
Buckley said the veto is disappointing.
“There’s an apparent need in the state,” he said. “Having current equipment will allow us to better serve our community.”
Brown said the Department of Education can lease new buses with recurring funding already available.
“We will still be getting new buses regardless of what happens,” he said. “How many remains to be seen.”
The state budget will take effect on July 1. It is unclear whether S.C. lawmakers will return this summer to take up McMaster’s budget vetoes.
Local districts would like to see the funding come through.
“The money (the education department) had earmarked was going to go a long way to try to improve a lot of the safety concerns and take care of those needs at the local level,” Vaughn said. “At some point you have to replace buses; we’re running buses well over 20 years old.”