Sunday, March 25, 2012

Privatization bill catches national attention

South Carolina's costly and unnecessary proposal to dissolve and privatize the state's school bus transportation system has attracted the attention of a national publication that focuses on student transportation.

Ryan Gray of School Transportation News reported on Friday that the school bus privatization bill under consideration in our legislature has been amended but the issue is still unresolved.

Gray begins, "County school districts remain unsure of what will be expected of their transportation services next school year as the state legislature has yet to vote on a bill that would require the South Carolina Department of Education to turn over school busing to local district control."

Amendments to H. 4610 were approved earlier this week to no longer subject homeowners to paying taxes benefiting school operations. This is one sticking point among opponents of the bill who feared taxpayers would be left footing the bill for the fleet transition. Meanwhile, others have feared that school districts would be saddled with new costs in the millions when being forced to take over school bus operations from the state or outsource.

Starting this July, school districts would have one year to prepare and publish RFPs to solicit bids from school bus contractor companies to provide service per state and local procurement provisions, beginning with the 2012-2013 school year. Contractors would be required to consider employing existing school bus drivers and maintenance staff if taking on the service for a local district. But districts could also choose to own and operate their fleets.

A main advantage of the bill would be to reduce the age of the state's school buses, considered among the oldest in the nation, within six years. Between July 1 of this year and June 30, 2015, school districts would only be able to operate school buses less than 20 years old. This requirement would fall to 15 years of age until July 1, 2018 date, at which time all school buses in service would have to be less than 12 years old.

Legislators also amended the bill to remove a reimbursement fund that was initially marked up because the state was going to have to sell nearly 6,000 school buses, equipment, maintenance shops and other facilities. The bill now essentially hands all assets over to the county systems, with the state Department of Education required to complete the transfer of facilities by this July and all school buses by Jun 30, 2013.

As such, the state no longer would receive revenue in return to fund local transportation. Instead, a state funding formula would need to be put into place beginning with the 2013-2014 fiscal year to reimburse districts per bus and per mile driven. Exact percentages would be determined and approved by the legislature in the annual state budget, said a source familiar with the legislation.

Comments made in the School Transportation News Linkedin group indicate ongoing concern over proper state reimbursement funding to school districts.

The source added that the legislature delayed voting until members had a chance to review the large amendment that was adopted. The bill was introduced as a “skeleton bill,” according to lead author Rep. Jim Merrill at the meeting.

Gray's summary is solid and creditably fair to the privatization crowd.

This footnote caught my attention, and I have to say that School Transportation News is awfully optimistic to seek comment from our ambitious, absentee chief executive.

Editor's note — At this writing, STN had approached representatives of Gov. Nikki Haley, a vocal opponent of unions, to obtain comment on the relationship of school bus contracting and organized labor. What unintended consequences might a law create? How might this affect the funding formula for county school districts? We hope to bring that conversation to our readers in the near future.

Haley doesn't speak to journalists representing her own state's largest regional newspapers.

I'd say it's a safe bet that STN shouldn't expect a return call.

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