Parents, education officials and community activists in Georgetown County are pressing the state for a new school boat for Sandy Island schoolchildren.
Activists say the boat currently in use, which was bought in 1965, endangers children because of its age and production of diesel fumes. Parents have complained to Morris Johnson, president of the Georgetown County NAACP, that their children smell of diesel every day after riding the boat.
Johnson said he plans to take the Sandy Island school children’s case to County Council and the Georgetown Board of Education at its next meetings.
S.C. Department of education officials say they are in process of getting a new boat, but did not specify how long that might take.
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“This is definitely a problem,” Johnson said. “Any exposure to any type of fumes, over time, will take an effect on the body.”
Titus Brown, Jr., of Choppee, said he understands the effects of diesel fuel on the human body. He had a tracheotomy – a procedure that opens a direct airway from the neck – in 2010 after exposure to fumes from his truck. Brown was hospitalized for six weeks in 2010 and again in 2011.
“If these kids are ingesting that level of fumes, twice a day, it’s going to cause some respiratory problems,” Brown said. “They’ve got little lungs.”
Besides the age and condition of the boat, which transports students in the same unheated cabin as the engine, Brown said the fumes are reason enough for a replacement boat.
“The health risks alone should be substantial enough,” he said.
The island, a 12,000-acre tract in Georgetown County, is accessible only by boat and is home to about 30 families. Ten children currently board the boat, the Prince Washington, for their daily trip to the mainland schools.
The boat is owned by the state – much like school buses – and South Carolina is the process of “procuring a new boat,” said Dino Teppara, public affairs director for the S.C. Department of Education.
“We’ve discussed the situation with community stakeholders and will do our best to replace the boat within the procurement timelines and laws,” Teppara said.
In South Carolina a school boat and school buses belong to the state, though replacing the state’s decades-old buses have taken the spotlight recently.
Former State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais announced a fleet of new buses in 2012, payed for with almost $12.5 million in unclaimed lottery-prize money. South Carolina operates the only state-run bus fleet in the country, and it also is the oldest fleet in the nation, with the majority of the buses more than 15 years old, according to the state Department of Education. Many of the buses date to the 1990s and some even to the 1980s.
Johnson said he plans to take the Sandy Island school children’s case to County Council and the Georgetown Board of Education at their next meetings.
“We’ve been trying now for years to get a new boat, and nothing has been done,” Johnson said. “The (state and county council) didn’t feel like this was an important issue.”
Georgetown Board of Education representative Arthur Lance, district 7, and Zelma Carr, district 4, joined the NAACP at the boat this week to discuss taking action. Sandy Island residents are in Lance’s district, and he encouraged residents to “hold the fire to his feet.”
“Something really needs to be done because this has gone on for too long,” Lance said. “I will make sure [the school board] does everything on God’s planet to make sure we get this right.”
Members of the Georgetown County Council were invited to visit the boat but could not attend due to a joint meeting with Horry County Council at the same time.
The boat is not handicap accessible, which caused activists in past years to protest for renovations or a replacement, Johnson said. The wharf and docks are handicap accessible. Other challenges include whether the boat could also be used for the public and how kids get to the mainland if the boat breaks down, Johnson said.
“If something happens to this boat, I don’t care how much money it takes, you better believe the state will get these kids to school,” Lance said.
“It’s the law.”
So what’s the best solution for Sandy Island schoolchildren?
“A new boat,” Johnson said. “As soon as possible.”