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School Bus Privatization Fails Again – Why?

It has been well documented that South Carolina is the only state in the nation that manages its own school bus fleet, but it is not so widely understood why.

Donald Tudor, former director of transportation for the state Department of Education, boasts of efficiency in the state-run fleet. “A better question is, why change it? This has been safe and effective through all its years,” he said.

In this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, proposed the School Bus Privatization Act, a bill that would have decentralized the school transportation system, handing individual districts the responsibility of operating their own bus fleets or contracting with private companies.

The bill, H. 4610, cleared the House but did not make it out of the Senate before the session ended.

But the issue is not quite over. Although the two-year session has expired, Merrill says he and his co-sponsors plan to reintroduce the bill next year.

The idea of decentralizing or privatizing the state-run school bus fleet also could get a thorough vetting through a study committee proposed in a state budget proviso.

While South Carolina is the only state with a centrally operated school transportation system, it is not the only state that provides financial support for buses.

North Carolina has a state-supported system where funds are provided to school districts for fuel, new buses and other expenses, but the districts manage their own systems, said Ben Matthews, director of school support for the N.C. State Board of Education.

Matthews said some North Carolina districts looked into privatization and concluded that it was far more expensive. “It’s not cost-effective, because the state supports it so well,” he said.

In Georgia, by contrast, the state provides “some funding for the local districts, but the local systems are currently picking up the majority of the cost,” said Matt Cardoza, communications director for the Georgia Department of Education.  

Two Georgia districts use private companies, Cardoza said.

When Merrill’s bill was first introduced back in January, the legislation received immediate support from Gov. Nikki Haley, who composed a plan for implementing “local choice for student transportation” in her executive budget for fiscal 2013.

In fact, Haley wanted to make this one of her key education issues, so state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais agreed to let her take the lead on it, Zais spokesman Jay Ragley said when asked about the superintendent’s position on the matter.

“Zais does not oppose decentralization of school transportation,” said Ragley.

The bill, however, proved to be a complicated issue that divided legislators. They eventually agreed to amend it to form a study committee that would examine privatization for the school bus system.

That legislation received overwhelming support in the House but also went on to die in the Senate.

The issue could still be studied, though.

A proviso proposed for the Legislature’s budget for the new fiscal year that begins Sunday would form the School Transportation Decentralization Committee.

“I’m hopeful that the study committee will come up with a bill,” said Merrill.

Tudor says school districts are hardly clamoring for a decentralized school bus system.

“There are some members of the General Assembly who want to shift this burden to local taxpayers,” he said. “The school districts don’t want this headache. They’re not encouraging the General Assembly to change anything.”

Districts already are paying at least half of what it costs to deliver transportation, mainly the training and salaries of drivers, according to Tudor. The state puts hundreds of millions of dollars into fuel, maintenance, insurance, and acquisition of buses, he said.

Merrill said it is not so much privatization his bill advocates as decentralization. He compared South Carolina’s state-run school bus system to government in that, “the bigger they are, the more cumbersome they are. It should lie in the local’s hands.”

A few districts, like Dorchester 2 and Charleston County, already have outsourced their transportation systems. Other districts, most notably Florence 1, publicly opposed the legislation.

Many observers agree that the school bus system needs upgrading. Many buses are more than a decade old and lack up-to-date safety features.

Tudor argued that even though the issue deserves to be addressed, it is essentially beside the point presented by the School Bus Privatization Act: Who should pay for the buses?

“If you split it up, certain schools will not have equal transportation,” he said. “Some kids will have no transportation. That equity issue will be lost.”

The state-run system was set up in the 1950s, “in concert with civil rights cases in Clarendon County,” Tudor explained.

Briggs v. Elliott was one of the contributing cases that eventually overturned racial segregation in U. S. public schools with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Briggs case initially sought to provide transportation for largely African-American student populations, who, because of segregation, were not only subjected to inferior facilities and materials, but often had to walk several miles to get to school.

“It began as an equity issue,” said Tudor, “to make sure every child’s school transportation was at a certain level of quality and quantity.”

Concerns have been raised that an imbalance would return if the system is decentralized because poorer districts might find it difficult to compete and provide adequate transportation, said Tudor.

When asked how rural districts in Georgia have managed to run their own systems, Cardoza, the spokesman for that state’s education agency, replied, “Well, it hasn’t been easy, but so far they’ve managed.”

Merrill said his bill provided for districts to be reimbursed using a formula based on driving distance, a provision designed with rural districts in mind. “They would receive more money because they drive more miles,” he said.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.

Budget General Assembly K-12 Legislation

S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais Rep. Jim Merrill Gov. Nikki Haley