Fixing bus transportation woes | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | January 13, 2017 5:00 am
Last Updated: January 11, 2017 at 2:13 pm
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
Comments out of Columbia and money out of Washington D.C. could translate into Colleton County School District being better able to address its student transportation concerns.
While school board members and the administration have attempted to ease the district’s problems with attracting and retaining bus drivers, the condition of the bus fleet has been a state concern.
In South Carolina, ownership and maintenance of the school bus fleet is the responsibility of the South Carolina Department of Education while the individual school districts have the responsibility for providing the bus drivers.
Monday, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman went to the Statehouse grounds with a bright, yellow school bus to announce two legislative initiatives she will be bringing to the new term of the South Carolina legislators.
First, Spearman said she wanted state legislators to come up with the funds to replace 1,000 school buses statewide. She wants every school bus with 20 or more years in service replaced.
It is an initiative for which South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has voiced support in the past.
The state legislature would be required to spend up to $105 million to replace the old buses.
Colleton County Assistant Superintendent Cliff Warren said that the assessment of buses to be replaced in the Colleton County’s fleet if the state legislature follows through with Spearman’s initiative is still under way.
The school district is already in line to have seven school buses replaced by the state this fiscal year. Warren is not sure if those seven are among the 1,000 Spearman wants retired.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently awarded South Carolina a $1.1 million grant to be used to provide more environmentally-friendly school buses.
Colleton County School District is one of 11 South Carolina school districts that will share in that $1.1 million U.S. EPA grant.
The grant will assist the South Carolina Department of Education in replacing 57 school buses with new cleaner-running models across the state.
According to the state plan, $140,000 of the U.S. EPA grant will be used by the state department of education to purchase seven new school buses for Colleton County. The Charleston and Greenville County School Districts received the largest portion of the grants: $200,000 to replace 10 buses. Colleton County’s grant was the third highest allocation.
“We are pleased to have been awarded this funding which will go to replacing our state’s aging fleet with lower emissions and more efficient buses,” Spearman said when the grant was announced.
“The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control played an integral role in the application process and we appreciate their support as these funds will truly benefit the health and safety of students and communities in our state,” concluded Spearman.
The new and retrofitted buses will reduce pollutants that are linked to health problems such as asthma and lung damage.
A second initiative Spearman announced Monday, could have an affect on the Colleton County School District’s efforts to attract bus drivers and keep them on the job.
Like teacher salaries, the state sets minimum salary levels and provides some funds for bus drivers.
Warren points out that Colleton County School District, like most of the school districts in the area, pays its bus drivers a base wage higher than the state mandate, a move necessary to attract new bus drivers and then retain them.
Even with a base wage that is higher than the state’s mandate, Colleton County School District is continually on the hunt for new bus drivers.
Often, once the bus drivers hired by the school district receive their necessary training and licenses, the bus drivers move on to other neighboring school districts that have a higher basic wage.
Spearman said that she recognizes the problems school districts face with attracting new bus drivers and keeping them.
She wants the state legislature to seek to address that problem by allocating an additional $19.2 million to the funds coming out of Columbia for bus driver salaries. She also wants the state legislature to provide an additional $2.7 million to increase the base pay for the bus mechanics.