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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hillsborough board will vote Tuesday on bus purchase

For going on a year now, school buses have been a source of controversy in the Hillsborough County school district.

It began when the School Board rejected a move in July that would raise money to buy as many as 250 Thomas Built buses. That discussion set a chain of events in motion that culminated in the resignation of the district's transportation chief and a resolution by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to start buying buses and shore up the transportation department as a whole.

Elia promised transparency in the process, and true her word the district posted voluminous information on the agenda for Tuesday's 3 p.m. meeting. Transcripts of interviews with four whistleblowers, followed by the result of an internal investigation into their complaints; transcripts of town hall meetings, details on a planned departmental reorganization, minutes from employee focus group meetings - it's all included.

There's also a proposal to buy the first batch of 100 buses and a plan to keep going until all 1,400 -- some of which are 20 years old -- are replaced. Reverting to its original choice, the district has named Thomas Built as its preferred brand. Money should not be an issue, as the district says it can tap capital millage dollars, Hillsborough's community investment tax, parimutual revenues, money raised by selling old buses, and general fund revenues if needed.

But will the board approve all these moves?

We won't know until Tuesday, and already there has been push-back from another bus brand.

Florida Transportation Systems, the local representative of Blue Bird Buses, wrote to school officials last week, objecting to their choice of Thomas and  the process the district used to reach that decision.

Among other things, they contend the district and its consultant based their decision on false information about their brand and they can provide buses for substantially less money.

This is the same group that held a news conference on May 29, offering to sell the district 350 propane buses in a package deal that would have included bank financing and guaranteed fuel rates for two years.

The district relied on School Bus Consultants, which designed an evaluative tool that considered the state's requirements and manufactureres' options. More than 50 measures of safety, reliability, and utility were computed and assigned weights.

It's that process FTS is challenging. FTS also doesn't want the district to "standardize" its fleet, which would essentially mean a commitment to buy from Thomas Built every year. And the Blue Bird/FTS group contends the meetings between the consultant and district staff to design the evaluative tool should have been noticed to the public.

There's also an item on the agenda that would expand the consultant's scope of duties.
Back to the whistleblowers: The report from Linda Kipley, General Manager of Professional Standards, essentially found that supervisors in the department responded appropriately to problems that the trainers spotted at two exceptional student education centers; and that no one bullied trainer Corie Holmes.

[Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2014 9:48am]


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