District study shows aging state bus fleet costing students 100s of hours of class time

Older model, state-owned school buses could be costing some students across the state hundreds of hours of lost time in the classroom because of breakdowns and delays that leave kids stranded at the bus stop.

The revelation comes after the Charleston County School District took action last year, working off complaints from parents who were fed up with late buses.

CCSD officials opted to withhold 10 percent of monthly payments from Durham Bus Services, who provides most of the district's buses, until the problems were fixed. The result was more drivers being hired and an uptick in the rate of on-time buses.

But that led to the district keeping track of all late buses operating for CCSD. That's when the problem with state-owned buses emerged.

It's alarming news for Laura Erickson, a mom who is up before 6 a.m. every weekday to get her 6-year-old daughter off to school.

"It's a great rush," she said, describing the routine of making breakfast, getting dressed and ready for school, and finally heading to the car.

By 7 a.m., they're off to Ladson Elementary School where her daughter is a student. Erickson says she has to drive because she can't depend on her daughter Olivia's bus to show up on time.

"They are broken down, or they do not have a driver, or such and such bus is picking up for this bus," she said.

Starting late last year, the district began logging every time a school bus was late, which schools were affected, and how much instructional time was lost.

"Anytime you're going to be late for school you're going to affect not only yourself but the other kids that are already in your class and the teacher for that particular day," said Jeff Scott, the Director of Transportation.

Based on the reports compiled by CCSD, Ladson Elementary buses had the worst performance over a three-month period. Students lost nearly 600 hours of instructional time due to late buses.

Scott says the district is using that data to make changes.

"We've got to go back and actually troubleshoot each of the routes that are having consistent issues and make adjustments," he said.

While Ladson students may be losing the most time, it's far from alone in that. Documents show North Charleston Elementary and Garrett Academy together lost nearly 900 of instruction time in that same three-month period.

"One thing is glaringly obvious is that our state bus fleet is probably 98-99 percent of the cause of late buses, whether the buses are breaking down, whether they are mechanically not working or functioning properly," said school board member Mike Miller.

Miller says it's not Durham buses but the state's fleet that are breaking down.

In January, state Superintendent Molly Spearman asked for millions of dollars in new buses.

"It's really the way to go, lease to purchase. It's just like you. You might not have all the money you need to buy your new car," so it's paid for over time with a schedule, Spearman said.

For now, Erickson gets a message from Ladson Elementary every time a bus is late. So far this school year, she's received more than 20 messages.

Until they stop, Erickson says she will keep driving her daughter to school.

"You know, I want to be able to trust that our child will get to school on time and we absolutely might consider sending her to school on the bus," she said.

Spearman's office said Tuesday that the budget for new buses comes out of the Ways and Means Committee and it only includes $10 million in non-recurring funds for new school buses.

That may sound like a lot, but it's only a tenth of Spearman's request.

Locally, Scott says more than 99 percent of CCSD's buses are running on time after Durham hired more drivers. But new buses are still needed.

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