Special Assignment: Bus Battles
By: Ashley Jeffery Email
By: Ashley Jeffery Email

News 12 at 6 o'clock, March 22, 2010

SOUTH CAROLINA --- Every school day more than 350,000 students ride South Carolina school buses. Sometimes they make it, other times they get to school after the bell rings because the bus breaks down.

And old school buses and the state's money troubles are making just getting to school a challenge. South Carolina school bus battles date back three decades and the trouble has only gotten worse with more needs and less money.

More than 10,000 Aiken County kids board a school bus everyday. But the time some of those kids get on and off the bus is a lot later than some parents hope for.

"It makes me angry and I worry on a daily basis. Because it's not a problem that's just going to go away. It's something i have to wake up and face everyday," said parent Ebony Williamson. She says she deals with bus breakdowns almost every month.

"My daughter's school starts at 7:15. Most of the time, she's not making it onto the the bus until 7:30, 7:45. It's very frustrating. It actually has me worried. It's interrupting daily time, breakfast time and instructional time," said Williamson.

And South Carolina School Transportation Director Donald Tudor says Ebony's concerns aren't falling on deaf ears. He says as the "oldest bus fleet in the nation," his department hears complaints of broken buses from all over the state. And now that they're facing one of their biggest issues, finding 22 point 9 million dollars; repairing and replacing 15 to 20 year old school buses will be tougher than ever.

"To transport the child safely that's number one above and beyond everything else. And number two is to get the children there on time so they can get the education they're supposed to get and if you don't do that, you've failed," said Donald Tudor.

And both parents and bus riders believe the system may be letting them down.

"One thing I do not want is her grades to start dropping because of something like that," said Williamson.

"I'm missing math and reading and stuff and I like math and I don't like missing it," said Ebony's daughter Zabrianna Creech.

Ebony says her daughter misses class time when the school bus is late. But people News 12 talked with say their bus troubles go far beyond the classroom. Some of the buses are so old, officials say they're surprised some students actually make it to school.

"When you see a special needs bus that's 25 years old, it's way passed when it should be replaced. The lift on that bus was manufactured back in 1985 and it doesn't have the safety features that many of the lifts have today.But that's the lift on that bus and that's the one we have to keep operating," said Donald Tudor.

Some special needs buses in the fleet date back to 1984 and Tudor says that's not a good look for the children who need their services the most, especially since they're running out of parts to repair them.

"We don't really see or have expectations we're going to have bus replacement this coming this year. There's certainly no money in the present budget."

South Carolina is the third largest fleet in the country behind two private companies Durham Transportation and First Student. And the South Carolina fleet has some of the nation's largest problems, especially when it comes to passenger pickups.

"I'm very frustrated, concerned. I wish I could take her to school everyday but that's not really an option right now," said Williamson.

And options are running out for the state because of constant budget cuts and setbacks. In 1995 the department made the largest bus purchase ever in the country, buying more than 2,000 school buses.
But that $100 million dollar investment will be 15 years old at the end of this school year and that means if the money's not there to replace them or buy replacement parts, more kids may be standing and waiting just a little bit longer for their bus to come.

"I would like for all of us to get new school buses but that may not happen. I'm sure I'm not the only one affected by this and I'm sure it gives a lot of parents headaches," said Williamson.

Currently South Carolina school districts are scavenging replacement parts from broken buses.

But soon that'll be a thing of the past.

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