- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Superintendent of Education is requesting $34 million for new school buses and asking lawmakers to close a teacher bonus program to new entries.

Superintendent Mick Zais told a House budget-writing panel Wednesday that more than 60 percent of South Carolina’s state-owned buses are over 15 years old. It would take $34 million to comply with a 15-year replacement cycle law that legislators passed in 2007, then ignored amid the economic downturn.

“I don’t expect that many of you are driving a car that’s over 15 years old,” Zais told the Ways and Means subcommittee members. “But if you are, you understand that it’s not very fuel efficient and is expensive to maintain. Replacement bus engines, for example, cost about $20,000.”

A designation of $34 million would allow the Department of Education to replace all buses that are at least 23 years old, he said.

His agency’s last major purchase of 342 buses was in December 2012. Zais also asked for $34 million last year. Legislators approved $23.5 million, which could buy 280 buses. The agency hasn’t yet received all of that.

South Carolina is the only state to own and maintain a statewide school bus fleet. Its 5,505 buses travel an average of more than 16,000 miles yearly. Maintenance alone is expected to cost $66 million next fiscal year, and fuel is expected to cost $38 million.

Gov. Nikki Haley recommends putting $20 million toward buying or leasing new buses in 2014-15. Last year, she proposed no money as she continued to advocate privatization. She recommended that the state sell all of its buses by 2017 and let districts either be fully responsible for running their own buses or contract for services. But that idea, previously pushed by former Gov. Mark Sanford, has gone nowhere. Studies have shown that service may improve, but the cost is higher.

In releasing her budget Monday, Haley said she still believes privatization is the way to go. Zais has supported the idea while seeking the money.

“As long as the department is responsible for student transportation, a consistent and reliable source of funding for replacing old buses is essential,” he said Wednesday. “If the General Assembly provides adequate funds over the next few years to update our fleet, it’s possible that school districts or private contractors may be willing to assume responsibility for district transportation.”

Zais also repeated his recommendation to close an incentive program for teachers who earn a national certification. It provides an annual bonus of either $5,000 or $7,500 - depending on when they applied - for the 10-year life of the certificate.

South Carolina consistently ranks third nationwide in National Board Certified teachers, with more than 8,600 statewide.

Zais said he believes the program doesn’t increase teacher effectiveness.

Previous attempts to scrap the National Board stipends have died as teacher advocacy groups argued the bonus is the only way South Carolina rewards good teachers.

“It’s the only way we have to keep good teachers in the classroom,” said Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “In the past, teachers had to go into administration” to earn more money.

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