TAMPA — Two weeks into the school year, Hillsborough remains in crunch mode responding to transportation problems.
The transportation hotline fielded 1,500 calls Thursday over bus route changes. While the volume has dropped during week, the numbers remain strikingly high.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the staff will be working on transportation issues throughout the weekend. Since the chaotic start to the year, the district has added considerable manpower to the call center. It now has 19 phone lines running, twice the service it started with.
Officials from other departments are helping out with transportation, and the district has contracted with a former principal to assist schools to prioritize and triage problems.
"Each day, it's getting better," said Elia, predicting a turning point early next week.
She said the district expects to see bus problems at the start of any school year. But the magnitude increased greatly this fall following an overhaul of bus routes in half of the county. After two weeks of school, the district now is hearing mostly from parents unhappy with their bus stops or who believe their children should qualify for a bus ride but were ruled ineligible.
Other hot topics include busing for students with disabilities and eliminating service to after-school programs at county parks outside the school's boundaries, board members added.
"This was a crisis. It was a plan that just had so many components that were lacking," said board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero. "It's going to take a while, and (parents) might not like the answer at the end of the day, because the bus stops have been changed."
Faliero said their focus is on identifying and fixing problems.
"Have we gotten to the point of the performance level where we should be, ought to be and need to be? I don't think we have," said board member Doretha Edgecomb, looking beyond the immediate crunch. "One of the things we have really got to work hard on is repairing the public's trust."
A new wrinkle this week is the sudden retirement of the administrator overseeing the transportation division. Elia stressed that chief information and technology officer Jack Davis was retiring for health reasons, after earning a reputation as a problem-solver over a three-decade career.
Davis said he could no longer work 70-hour weeks after fracturing two vertebrae in his back in late June. He wants to turn the job over to someone with the energy to put in the necessary effort at this critical juncture.
In addition to transportation, Davis supervises information technology, communications, staff development, assessment and accountability, supplier diversity and customer service. He worked his way up through the district ranks, starting as an elementary school teacher.
He picked up the responsibility for the transportation division around the time its overhaul began. He said the plan to improve busing operations will work, but it won't be painless.
"All along we said there were going to be challenges, and there were going to be times when folks weren't going to be happy with reduction of service," he said. "We all knew that."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.