COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina General Assembly approved a bill that requires the replacement of the state's school buses every 15 years.
Donald Tudor, director of transportation at the South Carolina Department of Education, said that the move is essential and long-awaited.
"We've been working on such legislation for about 15 years, and we are delighted that the General Assembly has established this policy," he said.
The bill requires the state to annually purchase 380 new school buses — replacing one-fifteenth of its fleet — with funds appropriated by the General Assembly. The purpose is to rejuvenate the state's fleet, some buses in which are more than 20 years old. South Carolina is the only state that owns and operates its school bus fleet.
Tudor said that by the end of this fiscal year, the state will have purchased 712 new buses. He said that he hopes to be able to purchase another 460 buses with funds from the next fiscal year's budget.
"Within a 12-month period, we will possibly be able to deliver more than 1,100 new buses out of an operating fleet of 5,700 — that’s a great start," Tudor said. "The monies that have been appropriated so far are moving us toward the 15-year replacement cycle at a faster than one-fifteenth pace."
The road to passing the bill has been a bumpy one. In late May, it was approved by the state Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford on June 6.
In a letter to House Speaker Robert Harrell Jr., Sanford said the state should consider privatized bus service or leasing a substantial portion of the bus fleet. In the long run, he said, the state should consider decentralizing school transportation services. However, the House and Senate voted to override Sanford's veto on June 7.
In addition to requiring the replacement cycle, the bill contains numerous safety-related provisions designed to protect children. One provision allows young students (age 3 through second-grade age) to be picked up close to their homes if their parents are unable to walk them to their bus stops. Another provision restricts students' rides to and from school to 90 minutes.
Moreover, all buses are required to undergo at least one annual inspection, and all bus drivers, including those employed by private schools and day care centers, are required to pass a driver certification program developed by the State Board of Education.
These are just a few of the provisions — others include a mandate for the State Board of Education to establish a grant program to provide transportation for students who attend alternative public schools, as well as a mandate for the board to use biodiesel fuel to power the fleet when possible.
Of the provisions, Tudor said, "They are things we have practiced, but couldn't enforce because they weren't in statute. We've long needed them, and they will greatly improve the safety of our school bus operation."