Durham denies safety complaints by Beaufort County school bus drivers

In this file photo, mechanic Eric Albertson, center, removes tires from a school bus during its yearly full maintenance check at the SC School Bus Maintenance Shop in Beaufort.
In this file photo, mechanic Eric Albertson, center, removes tires from a school bus during its yearly full maintenance check at the SC School Bus Maintenance Shop in Beaufort. Sarah Welliver

Durham School Services officials declined to release maintenance and inspection records Friday for its Beaufort County buses and provided conflicting statements about which state agency is responsible for reviewing their safety.

Beaufort County bus-driver union members packed County Council chambers Tuesday during the school board's regular meeting to complain of unsafe buses and plead for district intervention.

The drivers did not say why the buses are unsafe or give specific maintenance concerns.

The state owns 127 of the district's 173 buses, according to district spokesman Jim Foster. Durham owns 29, and the district owns the remaining 17, Foster said.

Union drivers have declined to speak with The Beaufort Gazette or The Island Packet.

Durham spokeswoman Carina Noble issued a statement Friday saying the company "holds the safety of our employees and students we transport with the highest priority."

"The fleet of vehicles used to transport the students of Beaufort County is serviced regularly to ensure operational safety and is subject to an annual state inspection to ensure compliance with state guidelines," Noble said. "The average age of the buses we own and maintain is four years. This age is lower than that which is required by contract and is significantly lower than the average age of the current fleet owned by the state. We have a thorough preventive maintenance program for our buses, which is more than sufficient to maintain a safe and reliable fleet."

John Elliott, chairman emeritus of Durham, told reporters last week the state inspects the buses. When asked which state agency, Elliott said he was unsure.

A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education says its transportation office does not inspect Durham buses.

A Durham official said Friday that the S.C. Department of Transportation inspected the buses. A DOT spokesman said it does not.

When asked again, Noble said the S.C. Transportation Police performed inspections.

"Those were misstatements," Noble said. "In some states it's the DOT, in some states it's the department of education. In South Carolina, it's the State Transportation Police. The intent was not to give (the media) the run-around."

Noble declined a request to provide a copy of the Transportation Police's most recent inspection report of Durham buses.

An attempt Friday to reach a Transportation Police official was unsuccessful.

When asked for maintenance records of Durham buses, Noble said a reporter would need a "specific claim by an employee or customer about a bus or route."

Chief student services officer Gregory McCord, who oversees the school district's contract with Durham, said his office has not received any complaints this year about Durham buses.

McCord said he has asked for copies of maintenance requests and other records from Durham, but had yet to receive a response. He said he also intends to meet with drivers next week to hear their concerns.

"We don't want our drivers to be on any unsafe buses and definitely don't want kids on unsafe buses," McCord said. "We were just as shocked as everyone when we heard the claim by union drivers Tuesday. ... Hopefully, we'll have some information soon."

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