WMBF Investigates: Should SC school buses be in the hands of private companies?

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Despite state law that says South Carolina's entire fleet of school buses should be replaced every 15 years, your son or daughter in Horry County could be riding on one that is almost double that age.

One lawmaker says this issue isn't being taken seriously, and he's working on what he calls a long-term fix to this problem.

He wants to take the control over buses out of the state's hands and put the responsibility on each school district.

"Here in South Carolina, we have poor infrastructure. We have a poor bus fleet, and that's a mixture for a perfect storm," Rep. Wendell Gilliard said.

This legislative session will be the third time Gilliard has introduced his proposal to privatize school buses in South Carolina.

"You can't keep going through revolving doors, especially when you're talking about the safety of our students. That's why we have to take other alternatives," Gilliard said.

He believes the recent allocation of more than $20 million in surplus lottery funds to replace aging buses in S.C. is just not enough.

"Let's face it, we are poor stewards when it comes to maintaining these buses," Gilliard said. "Are we really serious about progressing with these school buses, caring about the safety of our children? Well, the only answer to that would be privatization. Other states are doing it. It's very successful."

Gilliard's bill would establish a school transportation reimbursement fund to reward the school districts for making this change, and the proposal would also give what money the state would be saving with this move to teacher salaries.

"Surely we could use that money elsewhere. We have a shortage of teachers because they are leaving South Carolina for better pay, better pension," Gilliard said. "We need to take note of that. We will have extra funding to put that money to good use."

However, not everyone is as optimistic about this idea.

Horry County Schools' director of transportation, Jim Wright, said he doesn't see a benefit to this bill.

"It would be more expensive for the county. You're constantly bidding on a contract. Once that contract goes out, you're kind of locked in," Wright said. "It's not a cost-saving thing for the taxpayers here of Horry County."

He would like the State Department of Education to maintain control, but he does want to see something done.

"The buses need to be upgraded, right now." Wright said. "We need to get to where the law says that the buses shouldn't be over 15 years of age. Right now, not only here in Horry County, but all over the state, we are running vehicles that are 30 years old. I currently run 45 myself here in Horry County that's 30 years old. I could apply for antique tags."

Wright said Horry County hasn't seen any major issues, but the constant maintenance of the older buses puts a burden on the school district and the students who rely on them.

"A lot of them little things go down, which affects time, which delays leaving our bus lot at the time we say we are going to leave there to get to the bus stop on time," Wright said. "You know, 15 years and above, that happens on a regular basis. That interferes with the timing in some cases."

Right now, there are 313 buses owned by the state in Horry County. Wright said most of those are over 10 years of age and approaching the 15-year mark that state law says is supposed to be avoided.

However, it's not. Wright said more than 50 of the school buses being used to take children to class in Horry County are almost double that age, sitting between 28 and 30 years old.

"I think we are putting the children at risk, and we should take serious action," Gilliard said.

While this issue isn't new, Gilliard believes a long-term fix needs to happen sooner rather than later.

"Let's not wait until a major tragedy when we all will have to stand back and say maybe we should rethink this. Let's rethink it now," Gilliard said.

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Education and Public Works.

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