Aging, broken-down school buses are leaving schools across York County without enough vehicles to get students to class on time, officials said.
Spare-part shortages cause delays, they said, and overburdened mechanics struggle to keep up with repair needs.
It's a problem across South Carolina, where more than 60 percent of school buses are at least 16 years old and half have traveled more than 200,000 miles.
Although the Legislature announced in 2007 that buses would be replaced at 15 years old, lawmakers have balked at spending during the recession.
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As of June, about 1,500 of the state's 5,672 buses were 21 years or older, according to Department of Education bus records obtained by The Herald.
South Carolina is the only state that owns and maintains its schools' buses. Local districts have no power to replace old buses, and only state mechanics are allowed to fix them.
Districts hire staff to coordinate routes, a logistical balancing act with vehicles taking children to and from home while shuttling students between schools throughout the day.
There have always been hiccups and breakdowns. . But transportation officials say problems are worse than they have ever seen.
"The buses are down so much that they're not available," Rock Hill schools Transportation Director George Hampton said. "We're having buses break down on the road ... We're in a crisis situation as far as timely routes."
It's tough to say exactly how many students show up to school late because of older buses breaking down.
"We're trying to track this right now: How frequently is the age of a bus causing a child to be late to class?" said Donald Tudor, director of transportation for the state education department. "We know it's happening. We just don't know how disruptive it is."
Tudor's staff is creating a system to determine how widespread the problem is.
Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York school bus drivers have been doubling the number of routes they drive to make up for broken-down buses.
Rock Hill's fleet of 88 is often down by four or five buses, Hampton said.
"Some kids have to wait until we run one route to get back to them," he said. "I'm concerned about children standing out on bus routes where yesterday I picked them up on schedule. We have parents calling really angry at us."
One of Fort Mill's 55 school buses has been down for two months because spare parts have been unavailable, Transportation Supervisor Mark Vigeant said. The fleet often is down by four or five buses.
Seventy percent of the district's buses are more than 15 years old, he said.
Vigeant has been using the district's eight "activity buses," meant for extracurricular activities and field trips, to get students to school on time.
"The mechanics are doing a great job," Vigeant said. "They're doing a super job, but they're really strapped. The bus drivers are great by being flexible."
But "each year we use these same buses, we're going to increase the break-down rate."
York's bus troubles are so bad that the district has called parents twice since August to say that officials are "working hard to do our best to change things around to make it work," Assistant Superintendent Matt Brown said.
"We've had mechanical issues since the beginning of school, but up until about a month ago, we always had enough spares to cover the buses that were broken down," Transportation Director Richard Podmore said. "It's entirely because of the age of the fleet and the high mileage of the fleet."
Podmore estimates that mechanical trouble with older buses causes 30 to 60 students to be late to school at least once a week.
York's oldest buses are 1988 models with as many as 500,000 miles, Podmore said. The average bus has been driven 300,000 to 350,000 miles.
School board member Shirley Harris, who's gotten calls from parents about late buses, said a bus recently brought her grandchildren home an hour late.
"Most people around here kind of realize you're going to have some problems," Harris said. "It's just when it gets to be longer than a while that you worry."
Clover has fared better. Transportation director Tony Mogavero said there haven't been any major bus breakdowns on the district's 38 regular routes. Clover recently loaned one of its four spare buses to the York district.
'Outside of industry standards'
Buses transport more than half of the state's 700,000 public school students to class, according to the Department of Education.
Too many of those vehicles are outdated, says a 2006 pupil transportation study that dubbed South Carolina's fleet "well outside of industry standards."
Even before the recession, "state funding ... has not been sufficient to allow the SDE (Department of Education) to maintain a reasonable standard of fleet and facility resources, nor expand the fleet size," according to the report, prepared by consulting firm TransPar Group.
Industry standards state a bus should be replaced once it reaches 12 years old or 180,000 miles, the report continues. "Additionally, new buses are more fuel efficient and include improved safety features," it says.
The Department of Education has tried to patch the problem by buying several dozen used buses from other states to replace South Carolina's oldest vehicles, some of which date back to 1985.
Buses from Kentucky - on average 17 years old - have helped some, Hampton said, but their age makes them unreliable.
Outgoing Superintendent of Education Jim Rex has been quoted as saying, "We're buying buses that the people of Kentucky believe are too old for their children to ride around in."
Given the state's money woes, spending on buses will be a tough call.
"We obviously didn't put a priority on keeping our bus fleet up to date," said S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. "I can't tell you why ... That's a state responsibility and the state hasn't lived up to it.
"The problem is the Legislature is faced with a series of crises in most of our agencies."
Any money set aside to buy buses would likely come from another area, such as teacher salaries, Hayes said.
"That's the type of decision we're having to make," he said.
Meantime, local transportation directors are bracing for winter, when cold weather batters buses, causing more break-downs. Vehicles fail to start, transmission fluid freezes and frozen doors jam.
Even worse, Hampton said, "some of these old buses don't have heat." Mechanics "work on them and work on them and can't get the heaters fixed."
Cold drivers can't maneuver buses as well without heat, and some refuse to drive under those conditions, Hampton said.
Six working Rock Hill buses have broken heaters, said Hampton, adding that he has no choice but to run them.
If he didn't, "we'd never get kids to school."