School bus privatization bill has one district worried

Florence School District One operates about 100 buses to take 12,000 students to and from school each day.

The state, foots the bill. South Carolina is the only state in the nation that still runs a statewide bus system.

In 2010, the state spent about $112 million to run school buses, but House bill H-4610 would turn the bus system over to the local districts.

The bill's sponsors say it would save the state money and put newer and safer buses on the roads.

Bill Kurts, the transportation director for Florence School District One, oversees the districts bus fleet and argues against the bill.

If the bill passes, it would go into effect in 2013. It would allow districts can operate the system themselves or use a private contractor.

The state would allow the districts to keep their existing buses for free, but the buses can't be older than 20 years.

Then in 2017, a provision would kick in forcing districts to get rid of buses older than 12 years.

In Florence District One, that's 63 percent of the district's fleet. The cost to replace the older buses? Kurts estimates it at about $10 million, and that doesn't include maintenance.

"We would have to find the funds to purchase buses, don't know what it would do on a classroom level, the education level of the child," Kurts said.

Those concerns prompted Florence District One school board members to pass a resolution against the bill.

They fear if it passes, they would have to cut jobs.

"It will filter down to who? Employees. These employees haven't had a raise now this is this the fourth year- and now we're talking about more expenses," said Pat Gibson Hye-Moore, Florence School District One Board of Trustees.

The bill would allow districts to keep the bus maintenance shops, but Kurts says contracting mechanics would be expensive.

Kurts argues it cost the state about $30 an hour to pay a mechanic, but it could cost them more than $85 an hour.

The bill does allow for the state to provide some money to districts to run the buses, but there's no guarantee how long that would last.

The privatization bill is expected to be discussed in a House Ways and Means subcommittee on April 17th. If it passes there, it moves to the full committee. If they clear it, it will be debated on the House floor. It could move to the Senate if it clears the House.

Some supporters give the bill a 50-50 chance of becoming law this year.

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