The South Carolina Department of Education has purchased 342 new school buses to eventually replace those in its current fleet that are up to 28 years old, Education Superintendent Mick Zais announced Thursday.
Zais made the announcement while standing in front of two buses— one new and another a 1986 model.
“What this means is that we will be retiring most, but not all, of the Ronald Reagan-era buses,” Zais said, “South Carolina has the oldest school bus fleet in the nation. In fact, some students in South Carolina are riding in the same buses that their parents rode to school in over 25 years ago.
The new Thomas models are all meant to replace the state’s aging special needs buses, specifically those made from 1984 to 1987, along with a few more from 1988. Some of South Carolina’s older buses have logged more than half a million miles. The new buses hold 27 passengers and two wheelchairs. The Education Department spent more than $28 million on the new vehicles. About $12.2 million came from unclaimed lottery winnings, while the remainder came from the agency’s leftover funds or scrap money from decommissioned buses.
They are the first new buses purchased by South Carolina since before the economic downturn hit in 2008. The Education Department has bought some used vehicles since then, with the most recent acquisition coming in January 2011. In 2007, legislators approved replacing the statewide fleet every 15 years. But the law was shelved over the next five years after tax revenue plummeted during the recession.
The newer buses have many upgrades over the 25-year-old versions. They have a better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs, Zais said. “These buses are 29 percent more fuel-efficient than the buses they will be replacing on regular routes. Of course that means there will be an enormous savings in the cost of fuel.”
Another important feature is air conditioning, according to Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley. Ragley said federal guidelines require some students with allergy or other issues to ride in an air-conditioned bus. If no bus was available, the district had to offer mileage to the parents or pay for a taxi service to take the child to school.
Zais has requested an additional $34 million in next year’s budget to purchase about 300 more buses. Ragley said that request tries to follow the 2007 law by replacing about one-fifteenth of the state’s fleet. South Carolina is the only state to maintain its own fleet on a statewide level. Most others either contract out the bus’s maintenance, or decentralize it to the school district level.