COLUMBIA, S.C. — State Superintendent Molly Spearman has revealed a plan to update South Carolina’s aging school buses and to raise driver and technician salaries, asking legislators to allocate funding for both initiatives.
South Carolina is the only state in the nation that owns the school buses that transport students throughout the state. The South Carolina school bus fleet also carries the distinction of being one of the oldest in the nation. According to the South Carolina Department of Education (DOE), half of the state’s 5,582 buses are more than 15 years old.
In a press conference at the State House on Monday, with a yellow bus as a backdrop, Spearman called the need for school bus replacement a matter of safety as well as efficiency.
“As state superintendent, my top priority is and always will be the safety of our students,” Spearman said. “We can no longer wait to address the needs of our state’s student transportation system. I am committed to working tirelessly with our state’s leaders to ensure students have safe and reliable transportation for years to come.”
Along with owning its school buses, South Carolina fuels and maintains them. Forty-five percent of the buses were manufactured in 1995 or 1996. According to the state DOE, the older models cost more than twice as much per mile to operate than newer models.
South Carolina’s Act 79, passed in 2007, mandated a 15-year replacement cycle for school buses. However, according to the DOE, funding has been “episodic and heavily impacted by the Recession,” and it doesn’t account for the growth in the number of students in many parts of the state.
Spearman said that based on the current fleet size, a recurring appropriation of $34.1 million per year would be needed to maintain a 15-year replacement cycle.
To address the fleet issues, Spearman asked the General Assembly to fund the replacement of more than 1,000 of the state’s buses that are at least 20 years old. The superintendent also worked with the state treasurer and legislators to establish South Carolina’s first lease-to-purchase program for school buses, which will reportedly enable the DOE to obtain 175 buses immediately.
“As a taxpayer, I thank Superintendent Spearman for being tenacious in her search for the lowest-cost financial solution in providing newer, safer school buses for our children,” State Treasurer Curtis Loftis said in a statement. “The reduced financial and operating costs will save the state millions, and our schoolchildren and bus drivers will be safer.”
Spearman also asked the General Assembly to fund baseline salary increases for school bus drivers and technicians. The superintendent cited a national and statewide shortage of school bus drivers, and she also pointed to difficulty in recruiting and retaining school bus technicians because they are often paid less than their counterparts at other agencies, including the state Department of Transportation.
Watch Spearman’s press conference below.