Claudia Herring, who drives a bus for the Charleston County School District, told a scary story at a meeting of school bus drivers organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters last week. Her voice shook as she recalled a dark morning.
"My original bus went down, and I drove a spare bus," Herring said. "I was losing speed. I called, and my supervisor tells me to pull over and restart the bus. I did. Proceeded on, was losing speed, and at the same time I was smelling something burning. I cleared the railroad tracks and got to my first stop. I called dispatch. I get no response. I call dispatch again and tell her, 'Something is burning.' Still no response. At this time, my airbags exploded on my bus. I evacuated 20 children, still had no response ... Finally after 20 to 30 minutes, I got someone to respond. The drivers were calling in and saying that there was an emergency, that my bus was on fire."
At the meeting, Herring and other drivers from Beaufort County, Charleston County, and Dorchester School District 2 described some real-life nightmare scenarios: denial of sick days, broken headlights, broken two-way radios, broken interior lights, buses that no longer shift into reverse — and a backlog of maintenance requests that go unaddressed for months. "It's time for bus drivers to stand up in the state of South Carolina," said Sebrina Isom, a former bus driver and member of the Teamsters Local 509. "We will not be silenced."
It was an emotionally charged meeting, with drivers calling out "amen" as their co-workers listed grievances. Their complaints were directed at Durham School Services, the company that has a contract to run the districts' bus fleets. But Michael Bobby, chief finance and operations officer for the Charleston County School District, says Durham only owns somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the buses in the district. The rest are owned by the state of South Carolina, and the state buses tend to be older. The state is responsible for repairing its own school buses, but Durham is responsible for deciding whether those buses leave the yard in the morning or go to a mechanic.
"The primary solution is to put something in place to rapidly upgrade the age of the fleet across the state and put enough money and people and resources behind the maintenance of them," Bobby says.
In a recent survey conducted by the Teamsters, more than half of school bus drivers and monitors surveyed in Charleston County, Beaufort County, and Dorchester School District 2 said they had been asked to drive or monitor a bus that they believed to be unsafe. Two-thirds said they had experienced a breakdown with students onboard. The survey tells a story just as scary as Herring's, and they make us wonder how the wheels on the bus go round and round.