S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has called on state lawmakers to replace more than 1,000 school buses statewide, but an agency spokesman says the exact number of buses requested to be replaced in Beaufort County and other school districts won’t be available until next week.
Spearman’s request earlier this week comes in the wake of five Beaufort County school bus fires last school year. A state Department of Education investigation found the “unusually large number of thermal events (in Beaufort and Jasper counties)” to all be age-related, said department spokesman Ryan Brown in an email this week to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
All five state-owned buses were between 20 and 28 years old at the time of the fires.
Here are details and the determined cause of each fire, according to Department of Education records:
▪ A Sept. 1 engine fire that spread through an empty, parked bus outside the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence. Investigators determined the fire started when a “positive starter cable made contact with engine block, causing the cable insulation to chafe, leading to a positive-to-short ground.” The 1995 model was a total loss.
▪ A Jan. 19 incident when a bus filled with smoke, causing 25 Beaufort High School students to evacuate on St. Helena Island. After the “small, insignificant fire caused by the metal air filter housing coming loose and making contact with the glow plug control module,” investigators wrote, the 1988 bus was repaired and is still in service.
▪ A March 16 bus engine fire that started while a bus was transporting students from Whale Branch Middle School. Like the Sept. 1 incident, investigators determined the fire stemmed from a positive starter cable, causing a positive-to-ground short. The 1995 model bus was also a total loss.
▪ A March 30 bus fire that started after its driver finished dropping off students and parked the empty bus at Robert Smalls International Academy. The fire started after a “securement clamp holding the positive battery cable broke.” The 1988 model was a total loss.
▪ An April 18 fire in a bus that served Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School and Ridgeland Elementary School. Only the driver was on the bus at the time of the fire. The fire began after an engine solenoid broke apart. The 1995 model was a total loss.
The state-run Beaufort School Bus Maintenance Shop maintains bus fleets for the Beaufort County and Jasper County school districts. State Department of Education investigators’ recommendations to the shop included, among other things, “reviewing inspection practices with shop personnel, stressing the importance of thoroughly inspecting the primary electrical system.”
“Shop personnel must be diligent at thoroughly inspecting and identifying defect,” a report read.
However, it is unclear if and when the state agency followed up with the shop to ensure the recommendations were addressed. Calls made to the Beaufort School Bus Maintenance shop, located in Burton, were directed to the Columbia office.
Asked if inspections on additional buses were performed by shop personnel, as was recommended by investigators, Brown could not immediately provide a response.
Bus inspections are required five to seven times annually, sometimes more depending on age and safety concerns, he said. But he could not immediately say when the last inspections were done for the five buses before the fires occurred in those vehicles.
Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said it is up to the state to decide when to remove buses from service.
Spearman has asked the state Legislature to spend $95 million in nonrecurring funds and $10 million in recurring funds statewide to replace buses, which she said her agency can get at a reduced, upfront cost through a new lease-to-purchase program.
The cost of replacing a single bus is $80,200, Brown said. He did not provide the cost to repair the one fire-damaged bus that is still in service.
Brown also could not immediately provide the ages and total mileage of the 129 buses supplied to Beaufort County School District.
Statewide, the average bus is 15.5 years old with 236,000 miles on its odometer, a news release said.