At the end of the 2016-17 school year, the Spartanburg District 5 Superintendent, Scott Turner, gave out Superintendent Citizenship Awards to 12 students at a special recognition ceremony—for bravery.
Why? Because on May 8, 2017, these 12 students told their school bus driver about smoke pouring from the back of the bus and then helped other students get off the bus safely. The bus’s driver, Teresa Stroble, is considered a local hero. In all, over 50 students escaped injury from the burning bus. Superintendent Turner remarked, “If they had not alerted her when they did, it would have been a tragic outcome.”
It was determined that a faulty heater was the cause of the fire that consumed the 22-year-old state-owned school bus.
Our State’s School Bus Fleet is Too Old
Our state fleet of school buses totals 5,582, and, according to state law, they are substantially overdue for replacement. In 2007, the SC General Assembly established a law calling for the State Board of Education to replace one-fifteenth of the fleet every year. That’s about 375 buses, at a total cost of roughly $31 million. However, since that law passed, the bus-purchasing law has been obeyed only twice, partly because of spending cuts during the Great Recession that began in 2008. The result is that South Carolina’s school bus fleet, which had an average age of 14 years in 2007, has only grown older, to 15.5 years. The average odometer reading on our school buses is over 236,000 miles.
Buses often sit awaiting maintenance for weeks, even months, because it’s so difficult to find parts that were last produced in the late 1990s to early 2000s. A 22-year old bus, such as the one that burned, is unfortunately not that rare in the fleet. Even more unfortunately, a bus damaged by heat is not rare, either. The state’s Department of Education has on record 108 fires and dangerous overheatings since 1995. The risk of fire can only increase with the aging of the fleet.
While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) does set and enforce safety regulations that cover large trucks and buses, school bus oversight is limited for this reason: all transportation of students on school buses to and from school and home is exempt from FMCSA’s safety regulations.
What’s Been Proposed to Fix the Problem?
Earlier this year, SC legislators approved a budget that included $20.5 million for bus replacement, taken from education lottery funds. Although the governor vetoed the item, there has been a call for the legislature to override the veto. Currently, two proposals would together provide $46 million to purchase 556 buses, which would replace about 10 percent of the fleet. If passed, the first group of buses to be replaced would be those from 1995 that have a track record of overheating problems.
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has started a petition that would call the General Assembly back into session in order to override the veto. Superintendent Spearman commented, “It goes past whether you have children in school or not, whether you’re involved in government or not. People want to see South Carolina do better with this. They have to look at it from the parents’ perspective: Is this bus safe enough to put my child on?”
The Louthian Law Firm has represented injured South Carolinians in personal injury suits since 1959. With our firm on the case, you can rest assured that you’ll receive the personalized attention you deserve. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured in a school bus or other vehicular accident, or any accident where another person has been negligent, it’s important to make sure that you understand your legal rights. Personal injury cases require a thorough investigation by an experienced legal team to determine which individuals and companies should be named as defendants and which legal theories should be pursued. South Carolina law can be complex, and there is a deadline for filing a claim. As the initial consultation is always free, reach out to us at the Louthian Law Firm today by calling us at 1-803-454-1200, or by filling out our online contact form.