Drivers of Beaufort Co.’s oldest school buses complain to district about work conditions

At least seven St. Helena Island school bus drivers have raised complaints with Beaufort County School District about having some of the oldest vehicles in the district — but that should change soon, district officials said Wednesday.

According to district chief of operations officer Robert Oetting, schools north of the Broad River are assigned the majority of the district’s oldest and smallest buses, about 18 of which are from 1988 — the oldest of the district’s 181-bus fleet — and have no air conditioning.

The reason for these assignments is that these schools have longer, rural bus routes with fewer children per bus than those south of the Broad, Oetting said Wednesday.

The 1988 buses have a capacity of 65 students, the smallest of the district’s fleet.

South of the Broad, there are “very compact” routes with more students, Oetting said. Many drivers run double routes — they drop off a full bus of students, then come back and pick up another one.

Oetting said Wednesday the St. Helena Island drivers will meet with transportation director Eldridge Black next week.

New buses north of the Broad

Two-thirds of the district’s 181-bus fleet 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.

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. In the years since, the state has retired all of its fire-prone 1995 and 1996 school buses.

However, St. Helena Island and other north of the Broad routes are slated to get 18 new propane buses before the end of the school year.

They’re part of a nearly $34 million legal settlement payout from Volkswagen to the state of South Carolina, being made over a 2015 allegation of the German automaker cheating on diesel emissions tests. The new buses will have a 78-student capacity, the highest in the district, and cost less to fuel and run than the older models.

They’re expected in March or April, district spokesman Jim Foster said Wednesday.

Oetting said all the new buses will be stationed north of the Broad to stay within range of their fueling station, which is being constructed now at the district’s Beaufort headquarters.

Driver retention still an issue

While Oetting said St. Helena Island is “in decent shape” on bus driver retention, the district as a whole has been short on bus drivers since the start of the school year and all of last school year.

“We’re constantly trying to catch up with having enough bus drivers, but also quality bus drivers,” Oetting told the board of education’s operations committee Monday.

Pay is part of the issue, as well as the state of buses — the state-run South Carolina school vehicle fleet is the oldest in the nation.

After a raise in the board’s budget for 2019-20, district drivers make a minimum of $13.55 an hour, or a salary of $14,634 over six hours a day for 180 days a year.

In Savannah-Chatham County Public School System, which Oetting said is the district’s biggest competition, drivers make a minimum of $14.32 an hour, bumped up to $15.48 once they complete a three-day training, according to classified employment services director Rodney Jenkins.

The district employs about 150 bus drivers, with 20-25 stationed at St. Helena and Hilton Head islands and 50-60 at Beaufort and Bluffton.

“As Alice (Walton, district HR director) will attest to, we seem to have problems along the way, and bus drivers leave us as fast as we can replace them almost sometimes,” Oetting continued. “That’s a constant struggle.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.