I see them mornings on my way to work: two young boys, two young girls, standing on the sidewalk dwarfed by their huge backpacks as they wait for the school bus with the sun barely up. And always, two moms hovering a discreet half-block away, watching their children handed off into the world.
What a complex and formidable task, transporting some 90,000 children safely to and from school in Hillsborough County, the nation's eighth-largest school district. And in the din of political squabbling that has become routine among school officials here, the transportation news of late has not been great.
Some of the conclusions from a consultant hired to assess the state of school transportation are sobering: A "gross underinvestment" in replacing a bus fleet that by the way is among the oldest in the state. Low morale, not enough qualified drivers and pay that's not competitive. Decisions to defer buying new buses are coming home to roost:
"The analysis indicates that the system has been stressed to the breaking point," the report says. "Either more funding must be provided or service delivery must be constrained. There is no other alternative."
Sobering, yes, but hardly surprising.
The focus on transportation following the death of a disabled student after a medical emergency on a school bus has brought a great hue and cry on these issues from transportation workers at focus groups and workshops. (Another of those workshops is scheduled for today.) School Board members who have kept focus on this, including Susan Valdes, deserve props here.
Unfortunately, it's also been fodder for long-standing power-struggles between some board members and their superintendent.
This week the Times' Marlene Sokol reported on a Westchase dad worried that a previous problem of buses so crowded that kids had to sit in the aisles on the way to Robinson High was happening all over again. He had photos, even. He reported that his elected board member, Valdes, one of the critics of the superintendent, "appeared more interested in charging the current administration with conspiracies that undermined the board's ability to get reliable bus bids."
He also blamed the board's current dysfunction and "its constant appointment of task forces rather than quickly addressing the district's most basic issues." Gotta love informed parents.
Valdes said she indeed suggested solutions. The bigger point is this: When it comes to problems with our school buses, we need action more than acrimony.
So this is promising: Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said without reservation last week that new buses will be bought "in a relatively short period of time." She has lately gone out to talk to drivers and even served up pizza and doughnuts. Call it PR, but there's something to be said moralewise for rank-and-file employees getting the ear of a higher-up over Krispy Kremes.
Monday, the concerned dad got assurances those overcrowded buses would get fixed.
All of which sounds like a start beyond the political squabbling that tends to overshadow the big picture around here schoolwise. Those parents who have to trust those buses with their children out in the world deserve at least that.