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Hillsborough school bus chaos irks parents

TAMPA — School officials will work extra hours over the weekend to answer questions from frustrated parents trying to learn where their children should catch a school bus Monday morning.

And at least for the first week of classes, any student waiting at a bus stop will be given a ride to and from school.

Those were among the measures announced Thursday by Hillsborough school officials following widespread reports that parents haven't received information on bus transportation just two business days before the start of the school year.

In recent days, the district has fielded hundreds of phone calls to the bus transportation center, where parents have encountered jammed lines and long waits on hold.

District officials blame a lightning strike for the phone problems. But they have no idea how many of the 35,000 letters detailing bus routes and stop locations never arrived at students' homes.

Many parents can't assume a school bus will show up at the same place as last year. The district has overhauled bus routes in south and central Tampa, the northern city and northwest Hills­borough.

On Thursday morning, Gayle Bernstein still didn't know where her three children would get on the bus. In the past week, she has spent hours trying to reach the transportation center.

"The whole thing's ridiculous. They've had months," the Hammond Elementary mother said. "What have you been doing? And why isn't it online?"

Parents across the county echoed her frustrations over a transportation overhaul that was supposed to improve busing in Hillsborough. The district held community meetings to discuss the changes in the spring and late summer, but many parents couldn't attend.

The information was detailed in letters mailed to all students eligible for transportation on Aug. 4. Schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she didn't know why many parents didn't receive them.

She said individual schools received bus route information about a week later than usual. This was due to the magnitude of the changes this year.

"Hindsight, we've learned that our efforts at communicating did not meet the needs of the parents," Cobbe said.

To exacerbate the confusion, some parents may not have received letters because they are not eligible for transportation, even if it was provided in past years. The district is cutting back on courtesy transportation, including rides within 2 miles of a school. About 6,000 students no longer qualify for a bus ride.

Schools have responded to parent concerns differently. At Deer Park Elementary, principal Lou Cerreta fielded numerous calls from worried parents Wednesday.

He fired off an e-mail listing bus stops and times and letting parents know there will be a 10-day grace period for Deer Park students while bus passes arrive. Parental anxiety quickly eased.

"It's a very different day today. It is a very beautiful day. Folks just needed some questions answered," Cerreta said.

Principal Cecilia Troutt had phones ringing at Davis Elementary. She was glad when she finally had information to share with parents Thursday morning. She passed bus route details out to every classroom teacher so they could help parents at an open house scheduled for the evening.

She understands their concerns. Troutt has three children in the school system, but has received bus information for only one of them.

"It's just been a growth year," she said. "We're doing our best here."

Times staff writer Jared Leone contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Hillsborough school officials will be answering transportation questions over the weekend at 982-5500.

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Hillsborough school bus chaos irks parents 08/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 8:29pm]
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