The Aiken County School District will receive seven new school buses soon – with all of them serving special needs students and possibly some without disabilities.

Such buses would likely replace 1988 buses, said Maria McClure, the district's transportation director.

Some buses could include non-disabled students depending on the routes, a State Department of Education spokesman said. The agency has purchased a total of 342 buses to be distributed to the state's 85 districts.

The buses in Aiken County will go to the state-run shop in Aiken. Another five will be sent to a bus shop in Johnston, which also serves portions of Aiken County.

The older buses “are safe,” McClure said. “The State Department of Education was not going to allow us to use them if they were not. But the new buses will have more equipment and will be able to transport more students. It's nice to have more of them updated.”

Through a press release Thursday, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais announced the most recent purchase of buses statewide. The latest purchase is the first since newly manufactured buses were obtained in 2008.

“Transporting students safely to and from school is a priority for the department and school districts,” said Zais in the news release. “These buses are more fuel efficient, less expensive to maintain and are equipped to transport students with disabilities. Today marks the first step in modernizing the nation's oldest school bus fleet.”

Overall, the new buses will replace all buses dating from 1984-87 and some from 1988, State Department officials said. Each new bus costs $82,030, with the agency spending just more than $28 million for the purchases. The funds came from lottery revenues, general fund carry-over revenues and revenue from the sale of scrap metal from decommissioned school buses.

In the press release, Zais expressed his thanks for the S.C. General Assembly for prioritizing funds for new school buses for the past two state budgets. Zais said he has supported and requested such funding and is also seeking another $34 million for additional bus purchases during the 2013-14 school year.

This latest such project demonstrates that elected officials from the Republican and Democratic parties can collaborate to meet a need, Zais said.

“South Carolina didn't earn the distinction of operating the oldest bus fleet in the nation overnight, and this issue won't be fixed overnight,” he said in the press release. “State government has heard the concerns of students and parents about the age of the school bus fleet, and today is a tangible milestone as we work towards resolving this issue in the years ahead.”

Bus driver shortages remain in Aiken County throughout the school year, McClure said.

“Right now, the flu season has hit a lot of our drivers,” she said. “That has put an extra burden on dealing with all the routes.”

Her department will conduct a training program for a full class of 20 prospective drivers in mid-January. Several others were in training earlier, which could provide three or four new drivers next month. While not all the candidates work out, McClure is hopeful to get as many on the road as possible.