Thursday, May 3, 2012

Spartanburg doesn't want unfunded bus mandate

Editors of the Herald-Journal last week detailed their skepticism of Governor Nikki Haley's scheme to privatize the state's school bus system, declaring that they don't want another unfunded mandate sent down from Columbia.

I doubt that Haley will suddenly reverse course upon reading the editors' commentary; after all, they endorsed Vincent Sheheen against Haley in 2010, cautioning their readers against Haley's "platitudes."

Still, the editors in this instance -- as in that instance -- make perfect sense.

If state lawmakers decide to divest themselves of the state’s school bus system, they must do so in a manner that doesn’t place an unfunded mandate on school districts.

South Carolina is unlike other states in that the state owns and operates the school bus fleet. Gov. Nikki Haley and some lawmakers have been pushing to change that. They want to create a system that allows school districts to operate the buses on their own or hire private companies to operate their buses.

The state House was too divided on the issue to pass the proposal. Instead, lawmakers voted to form a study committee to look into the issue.

There is much room for improvement here.

The General Assembly rarely approves money to buy new school buses, so the average age of a bus in the fleet is about 14 years. The state often maximizes the money it does have by buying used buses from school operations in other states.

It is likely that there are efficiencies and improvements that privatization could bring to the school transportation system. Allowing districts control over their transportation systems might also allow them to better provide for their students’ needs.

But there is danger in changing the system as well. Many school district officials are afraid of an unfunded mandate — something state government requires them to do but fails to pay for. That is a legitimate fear.

School officials know it is likely that lawmakers will turn over the bus system to them and initially turn over the money that ran that system. But will that state allotment keep up with inflation?

As the buses age and need to be replaced, where will the money come from to buy new buses? That money isn’t in the annual budget. The General Assembly makes a special appropriation every so often. Will it give up this money when the buses are no longer a state concern?

As fuel prices continue to rise, will lawmakers increase the budget given to school districts to run the bus system? Or once lawmakers have washed their hands of the bus system, will they leave school districts to solve that problem on their own?

If bus service becomes a local issue, wealthier school districts will put more money into their systems than poorer districts. How long will it be before lawmakers are denouncing disparity in district bus systems and calling again for change?

Transportation is a critical element of our education system. South Carolina’s children need safe and reliable buses to take them to school and back home. They don’t need another political football tossed between Columbia and school districts.

As the study committee examines this issue, it should focus on enabling improvements, empowering school districts and avoiding saddling districts with a new financial burden they are ill-equipped to bear.

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