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

News 12 at 11 o'clock, March 22, 2010

SOUTH CAROLINA --- South Carolina is number one when it comes to having the oldest school bus fleet in the nation. Almost 4-thousand of the buses are older than 15 years. For months there's been talk about budget cuts in the classroom. But if South Carolina sees more budget cuts for buses, your children may never make it to school.

On a daily basis South Carolina school buses are in and out of the repair shop. From inspections to breakdowns, buses of the nation's oldest fleet all find their way to the workshop.

"We used to be second oldest behind California, Louisiana has some old buses but now we're far and beyond the oldest fleet in the country," said Donald Tudor.

And when the director of South Carolina School Transportation Donald Tudor says the oldest in the country, he's talking about buses more two decades old taking your kids to and from school. With more than twenty percent of the buses older than 20 years old, their age is causing some big problems for the department.

"The bus pulled up, the driver was trying to get the door open so the child could board the bus. They finally got it open enough so the child could squeeze through to board the bus. That's a real problem because that's an emergency exit," said Donald.

And it's these kinds of issues that has parents like Ebony Williamson facing headaches in Aiken County.

"You can't call your boss everyday and say well I can't come in right now because my daughter's bus is late, I don't know where the bus is at, if it's going to be here," said parent Ebony Williamson.

Donald says it's a problem that dates back to the eighties when the state had to shift bus replacement money to pay adult drivers and get rid of student drivers. Right now, it costs more than $1.6 million dollars to pay Aiken County drivers each school year. And if, as planned, the legislature cuts $22.9 million dollars from the bus budget, it could mean a big cut in services.

"We operate on a 180 day school year. If you cut that much money out, it'd be a 122 day school year. That means sometime in early march of next year we'd stop because we'd run out of money," said Donald.

But that's not the only option. To keep the buses running for the entire year, more than six thousand of the state's routes would have to be cut. That means half of South Carolina students would have to find a new way to and from school.

"The question has to be do we want school buses to run? You cannot run the program with having a shortfall of $22.9 million dollars," said Donald.

States like Georgia and North Carolina replace a school bus every 8 to 15 years. But in South Carolina, more than 29 percent of the fleet is 15 years or older. In June more than 63 percent of buses will pass the 15 year mark.

Don says the problem with South Carolina school buses isn't just that they're outdated. He says they're also running out of replacement parts to fix them. The state has been keeping broken school buses for their parts but now those parts will be outdated as of next school year.

"All of those buses that we parked three years ago and have been scavenging off of, we've got everything off of them. It's just a compounding thing that makes it more and more difficult to keep the buses on the road," said Donald.

And with less funding, the issue has become a bus load of outdated trouble with no end in sight.

"You haven't seen a child not get school transportation because there was a lack of money for fuel, but you might see them standing on the side of the road because their buses break down and we don't have the money to replace them," said Donald.

Donald is confident the legislature will find money to fund the system. But he says even if they get money to buy new buses, there's still a six month wait. That means schools wouldn't get them until January or February of next school year.

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