Fund new school buses

Despite legislation passed by state lawmakers last year, don't assume that South Carolina's children will be going to school on safe buses anytime soon. Lawmakers are thinking about backing off from a promise to contribute nearly $20 million next year as the first down payment on replacing the state's old and often unsafe school buses.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee were combing the state budget this week to find ways to make up $240 million as revenue forecasts grow more ominous by the day. The current budget must be cut by $90 million, and this year's money for new school buses may be on the line.

Last year, lawmakers crafted the first serious legislative effort in years to upgrade the state's ancient school bus fleet. At the time the bill was passed, state buses, on average, were 14 years old, with some 1984 models still on the road and some with odometers reading more than 400,000 miles. It was the oldest collection of school buses in the nation.

The bill passed last year requires the state to buy enough new school buses -- about 480 a year -- to replace the entire fleet every 15 years. The initial allocation provided enough to buy 551 new buses, but with the proposed cut, the state Department of Education would only be able to buy about 150 new buses this year.

Many of the buses slated for retirement are unsafe to ride in and prone to catching fire. Many have holes in the floor through which exhaust fumes can enter, and most lack the safety features found on new buses.

Public education already is certain to take a big hit. Because of slumping sales tax revenues, school districts will lose about $60 million this year and next. The cuts will come from the Education Improvement Act fund, which is generated from a 1-cent sales tax approved in 1984. School districts will have to cut spending for programs such as summer school, gifted and talented courses, Advanced Placement classes and alternative schools.

It is hard to fathom the priorities of our state legislators. Do they not care enough about the quality of education this state provides its children to ensure a secure source of funding? Do they not care enough about the welfare of our children to provide them with safe school buses?

Thankfully, the proposal to cut funding for buses likely is to be challenged. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Majority Leader Jim Merrill said finding the money to stay on schedule in replacing buses should be a priority.

It took far too long for the Legislature to agree to upgrade the school bus fleet and ensure that, over time, every student in the state could ride to school in a safe, reliable, non-polluting bus. Turning away from that commitment now would be a mistake.