COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Department of Education (DOE) has purchased 86 used school buses from Kentucky school districts.
To bid on the buses at an auction, the DOE used money it obtained from selling to scrap metal companies the skeletal remains of South Carolina buses disassembled for replacement parts.
Although the South Carolina General Assembly approved an annual bus replacement cycle in 2007, it has not provided any funds to upgrade the state’s oldest-in-the-nation bus fleet in the last two years.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said that buying the Kentucky buses, which have an average age of 18 years, would allow his agency to retire 26- and 27-year-old buses that have 450,000 miles. Those retired vehicles will be cannibalized for parts to service other old buses in South Carolina’s fleet for which parts are expensive or hard to find.
“This obviously isn’t the ideal solution,” Rex said. “New buses are more reliable and require fewer repairs. They have better safety features and emission controls, and they get better mileage. But we’ve got to do the best we can with the resources we have. These used buses come very cheap, and they’re far newer than the 26- and 27-year-old vehicles they’re replacing.”
Rex went on to say that the DOE staff evaluated all of the buses offered at auction by a consortium representing many Kentucky districts. The agency eventually bid on 87 vehicles and won 86. South Carolina’s bids ranged from $2,864 to $4,500, with an average bid of $3,826.
As a point of comparison, Donald Tudor, director of the DOE’s office of transportation, said the current price of a replacement bus engine and transmission is more than $5,700. Tudor said that costs of major component repairs to aging buses have risen by 500 percent over the past seven years as the state’s fleet has aged.
The 86-bus purchase is the second time that South Carolina has bought used schools buses at auction in Kentucky. The DOE bought 73 1992 model year vehicles in 2005. Tudor said that Kentucky buses are purchased on specifications similar to South Carolina’s, and agency mechanics are comfortable servicing them.
Meanwhile, Rex has called upon the General Assembly to conduct a detailed, comprehensive study of the state's overall tax structure and to develop an adequate, equitable and efficient state revenue system. He said the on-again, off-again funding to replace aging school buses is evidence of a dysfunctional process.
“Riding a school bus is unquestionably the safest way for students to get to and from school each day,” Rex said. “But until the General Assembly starts appropriating the funds for annual infusions of new vehicles, we’ll continue to see unacceptable numbers of breakdowns and delays in transporting students. Adopting an annual replacement cycle doesn’t mean much if you don’t appropriate the funds to actually do it.”
Rex has told legislators that next year’s proposed budget for student transportation will not be enough to operate buses through the entire school year unless diesel fuel prices are lower than expected. If bus operating funds run out, Rex said the DOE likely would ask the General Assembly either for an emergency appropriation or for permission to run a deficit.
Rex also said that the DOE would continue to monitor other states that might make used buses available for purchase. The agency plans to purchase a total of 130 used buses before the beginning of the next school year.
A 2005 national report card by the nonprofit organization Union of Concerned Scientists said that South Carolina had the nation’s largest percentage of school buses manufactured prior to 1990 (60 percent).
Tudor said that retiring nearly all of South Carolina’s 1984 and 1985 model buses would leave 149 1986 model buses as the oldest in South Carolina’s fleet.