- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A state budget proposal approved Wednesday would provide new buses that run on alternative fuel to South Carolina school districts willing to foot some of the bill, as part of efforts to get decades-old, polluting school buses off the road.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the pilot program for up to three districts. The alternative-fuel buses are expected to cost roughly $10,000 more than the $82,000 average for regular-route buses.

In South Carolina, the education agency buys, owns and maintains the statewide school bus fleet. The fleet of 5,500 buses is among the nation’s oldest with 1,215 buses that are between 21 and 26 years old, according to officials.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said agency officials opposed the pilot as it passed the House, due to the extra up-front costs, but have agreed to the Senate compromise.

It requires districts to fund the difference in the bus’ cost, pay to train the state-paid bus mechanics working on the buses and be responsible for having a local fuel source.

“I’m glad to see locals having some skin in the game,” said Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. “If they’re not willing to put skin in the game, they’re not interested.”

The Senate plan specifies that between 5 percent and 10 percent of whatever’s designated in the state budget for new buses go toward those that run on alternative fuels such as natural gas and propane - provided, obviously, that a district decides to participate.

Hayes said it’s a way for districts to guarantee they get new buses. The Rock Hill school district was among those interested in the idea, since a compressed natural gas fueling station is located in the city. But he’s unsure what district officials think of the compromise.

The House set aside $12 million toward new school buses in its plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Senate is still crafting its spending plan.

Another budget proposal approved Wednesday directs the Education Department to buy air-conditioned buses only for those carrying special-needs students, whose health issues may require it. Last year was the first time the agency bought air-conditioned buses, and it adds to the cost, Hayes said.

As the state tries to replace decades-old buses, “we need to put money in new buses, not air conditioning,” said Hayes, who leads the Finance subcommittee that oversees the K-12 budget.

According to the education agency, air conditioning adds about $6,000 per bus. Districts could add it later at their own expense for about $10,000.

In January, state Superintendent Mick Zais asked legislators for $34 million to buy roughly 415 new buses, which would fulfill a 2007 law that calls for replacing one-fifteenth of the fleet yearly. Legislators ignored the law during the economic downturn.

Buses’ age and total mileage would determine which would be replaced by the Legislature’s designation.

Another education pilot program approved Wednesday would allow up to six districts to buy instructional materials directly from a state-approved supplier, rather than being required to go through the state’s textbook depository. Hayes said it allows districts that provide digital devices to students to buy e-textbooks not available through the state system.

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