October 24, 2014

House panel delays vote on school bus privatization

A panel of state lawmakers has delayed a vote on a bill that would turn over the state-run school bus system to local school districts. The House bill would allow those districts to either run the buses themselves or hire a private company.

“We as a state entity are not doing a good job of running a bus system right now,” said the bill’s sponsor Jim Merrill (R-Charleston), “So it would seem incumbent upon us to look at another option.”

After several hours of testimony from public school advocates and transportation companies, the Ways and Means subcommittee decided to delay a vote until they could learn more.

While the proposal would allow districts the option of running the system themselves, most of Tuesday’s debate was on the potential of private companies being hired to run the bus system.

Darrell Webb, the transportation director of Anderson School District Four, questioned why the push was being made. He pointed out that, under current law, school districts already have the ability to privatize if they believe it will save money.

But Webb said the state does not have a good track record, “So far, only three school districts have ventured into daily student transportation services being provided by private companies,” he told the panel, “And two have reported that it cost them more after privatizing than it did when the state provided the services.”

However, Merrill said the state has struggled for years to maintain the oldest bus fleet in the nation. In fact, the Department of Education has often had to buy 18-year-old buses at Kentucky auctions just so it can scrap 26-year-old buses in South Carolina.

“I don’t give a damn about buying another school bus from Kentucky,” he told the panel, “That’s stupid. What we’re doing now is stupid and this is a way to change it.”

Executives from three separate transportation companies told lawmakers that private systems would save money– which could be then used for buying new buses. School districts, for their part, are worried about how they will afford to maintain their own bus fleets without adequate funding from the state.

Merrill said he wants to work with districts to ease those concerns. “This isn’t a situation where anybody’s trying to ram anything down anybody’s throat,” he said, “I want us, with this legislation, to work with school districts to figure out a way that they can provide transportation for students.

South Carolina Radio Network’s Tripp Girardeau contributed to this report.