SC Dept. of Education buys used buses from Alabama

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Education has purchased 24 used school buses from an Alabama district that replaced them with new vehicles.

The new purchase marks the third time that South Carolina has bought used school buses in the past six years.  The Education Department bought 72 1992-model vehicles in 2005 and 81 more last year, all from Kentucky school districts.  Last year's purchase included 1990-1999 models, and agency officials said the used buses have performed well.

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.  To bid on the Alabama buses at auction, the Education Department used money it obtained from selling to scrap metal companies the skeletal remains of South Carolina buses cannibalized for replacement parts.

State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said that buying the 24 Alabama buses, which have an average age of 11 years, would allow his agency to retire 23- and 24-year-old buses.  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.

"We're doing the best we can with the resources we have," Rex said.  "This isn't the best solution, obviously, but it does allow us to retire some extremely old vehicles at no additional cost to the state.  Newer buses don't break down as much, they have better safety features and emission controls, and they get better mileage."

Transportation Director Donald Tudor said Education Department staff bid on 44 buses being retired by Talladega County in Alabama.  South Carolina's 24 winning bids averaged about $8,000, and mileages on the used buses range from 44,000 to 110,500.

Tudor 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 - mostly rebuilding or replacing failed engines, transmissions and differentials - have risen by 500 percent over the past seven years as the state's fleet has aged.

Rex said that riding a school bus is the safest way for students to be transported, adding that more than half of South Carolina's 700,000 public school students ride a bus to or from school each day.

"It's critically important that the General Assembly appropriate funds for annual infusions of new vehicles, whether by purchase or lease," he said.  "Until that happens, we'll keep seeing lots of breakdowns and delays in transporting students."

Rex has urged 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.

Both a Legislative Audit Council report and an independent consultant have called for South Carolina to budget for annual bus purchases.  The General Assembly voted in 2007 to replace buses older than 15 years, but no funds were appropriated for new buses in 2009, 2010 or 2011.

A 2005 national report card by the Union of Concerned Scientists said that South Carolina had the nation's largest percentage of school buses manufactured prior to 1990 (60 percent).  The nonprofit advocacy group tracks the age of school buses because the older vehicles produce far more air pollution than newer ones.

Tudor said the state agency would continue to monitor other states that might make used buses available for purchase.

He said the Alabama purchase leaves more than 1,100 buses in South Carolina's fleet that are older than 1990 models, although the SCDE uses service vehicles that are more than 30 years old.

Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved.