Wanted: A new lift

When the school bus carrying Yolanda Gordon's son, T.J., broke down on the way home from T.J.'s first day of school one hot Rock Hill day last school year, Gordon was upset.

"I didn't want him to think that this is what a bus ride was supposed to be," she said.

Gordon, whose 4-year-old son has a mild form of autism, is organizing a group of parents who plan to ask state lawmakers for newer special needs buses.

Gordon, who drives a regular school bus in Fort Mill, said there are too many older special needs buses on the roads. An older bus is more likely to break down or to have other problems, she said.

"These are children who are supposed to be our future," Gordon said. "And what kind of future is that if you're saying, 'All you get is a bus that was made before you were born?'"

Gordon wants newer school buses with air conditioning and heat. The average special needs bus in York County is from 1995.

The S.C. General Assembly approved a 15-year replacement cycle for school buses last year. Gordon wants lawmakers to create a different replacement cycle for special needs buses.

Unlike a typical school bus that picks up students in groups, special needs buses go door-to-door to collect students.

Donald Tudor, director of transportation for the state Department of Education, said a 15-year-old special needs bus could easily have about 400,000 miles on it. A regular bus would have about 210,000 miles on it, he said.

Tudor said his department unofficially tries to replace special needs buses first, but in years like this one, where there isn't money to spare, his hands are tied.

"If there's no funding next year, we won't be able to do anything," Tudor said.

Tudor said he would encourage parents to voice their concerns to their elected representatives.

Gordon's group, which is still in its infancy, is making a plan for action in Columbia. Individual school districts don't have much control over buses, which are purchased, maintained and fueled by the state.

The state education department is at the mercy of the General Assembly, which decides whether to spend money on new buses.

It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will have any money this year for buses that need to be purchased to keep up with the 15-year replacement cycle.

Gordon contacted parents through Family Connection, a network that connects parents whose children have disabilities or other special needs.

About 70 people from all over the state already have expressed interest in helping out, she said.

Allyson Velkovich said she is happy with the new special needs bus her 5-year-old son, Gillen, rides to the Central Child Development Center in Rock Hill.

But Velkovich volunteered to help fight for new buses anyway.

"I just like to have as much information as possible, and if there's a situation that comes up that's going to affect my child, and potentially other children, I want to try to help," said Velkovich, whose son has cerebral palsy.

"It may not be affecting me right now, but it could very well next year," she said.

Gordon said she and other parents are creating a strategy to move forward. She said she wants to talk to state legislators who worked on the first bus replacement law, as well as candidates running for state offices.

"If we as parents or if we as individuals don't come and say, 'This is the problem we have,' they don't know that there's a problem," Gordon said. "It's about getting the word out, getting voices to say, 'This is what we have, this is what we need.'"