Education

Some Beaufort Co. students were riding on 30-year-old buses. A lawsuit will fix that

When do you stop for a school bus?

With school back in session and buses back on the roadways, local law enforcement and school officials say it's important for motorists to understand when they are supposed to stop for a stopped school bus and when they may pass.
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With school back in session and buses back on the roadways, local law enforcement and school officials say it's important for motorists to understand when they are supposed to stop for a stopped school bus and when they may pass.

Students in Beaufort County will no longer ride to school on 30-year-old buses, thanks to millions in new money the state received in a legal settlement with Volkswagen after the German automaker was accused in 2015 of cheating on diesel emissions tests.

On Tuesday, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said the first round of the state’s nearly $34 million settlement — $9.3 million — will pay for three new public transit buses and 78 new propane school buses, 18 of which are headed for Beaufort County School District.

The 18 new buses will replace 1988 models still in the district’s 181-bus fleet, two-thirds of which are owned and operated by the state Department of Education. These 1988 models have been the source of several bus fires and breakdowns in the district over the last 12 years, with district spokesman Jim Foster saying the buses were “fire-prone” due to their age.

Foster said in a press release that the new buses are expected to arrive by early 2020. The fleet’s remaining 1988 buses will be used as substitute vehicles.

The district will foot the bill to bring power to the buses, which is estimated to cost between $20,000 and $40,000 in initial construction costs. Beaufort County School District Transportation director Eldridge Black said the state will pay for fueling equipment and the propane tank required for the new buses.

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The S.C. Department of Education chose these districts, in part, because of the high number of aging buses each district had on the road. Another factor, the agency said, is these school districts have the ability to maintain propane buses.

McMaster announced the new bus purchase alongside state schools chief Molly Spearman, adding it was a “good day” for the state of South Carolina. He thanked Spearman and Ray Farmer, director of the state’s Department of Insurance, for disbursing the money.

South Carolina’s aging school buses have been a thorn in the side for the state’s school districts, students and parents.

In 2015-16, the Department of Education opened an investigation into Beaufort County’s fleet, with four of the eight reported bus fires that year coming from the district. All of these buses were from 1995-96 and 1988.

The state has retired all of its fire-prone 1995 and 1996 school buses, and after the first round of the state’s Volkswagen settlement rids the state of 78 older buses, about 400 or so buses manufactured in 1988 and 1990 still will be operating, said S.C. Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown.

Within the next two to three years, the state’s Education Department expects to have every 1988 and 1990 school bus off the road, Brown said, using money they hope to receive through the next round of the Volkswagen settlement and money doled out by state budget writers.

“You get a significant cost savings from using new buses,” Brown said, adding the 1988-era school buses cost about 40 cents a mile to operate, versus the newer buses at about 21 cents a mile. “It’s less money the state is spending on fuel and maintenance.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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