Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

Focus groups yield more concerns about Hillsborough school buses

TAMPA — The statements echo what school bus employees have said at public meetings. They're about shabby repair shops, moldy buses, long hours stranded on roadsides and labor relations rife with suspicion.

In advance of a Hillsborough County School Board workshop Wednesday, the district posted notes from 27 focus groups that drew more than 600 workers.

"Some mechanics work under tarps and on the bare ground with poor lighting and subject to the weather," the report says.

Four pages later: "Parents are running transportation, not us."

There are relatively few complaints about exceptional student education, or ESE, an issue in the spotlight since the death of a child in 2012 after a bus ride.

But the employees said that while ESE driver training has improved, it takes too long, it should be extended to office staff, and all drivers should get the training because they often fill in for one another.

Complaints about communication were frequent — a major problem, as the buses are among the oldest in the state and break down often. Employees said when they call dispatch, assuming their radios work, they are told, "Drivers, be patient. I am the only one here."

Low wages were mentioned at every session, and drivers said repair work is substandard.

"Many drivers reported long waits for towing, some up to six hours, only to be told that they could not ride back in the tow truck and were on their own to find a way back to the compound or field office," the report said.

The sessions, conducted by the Business Process Improvement team, began March 3, shortly after four trainers wrote a memo that complained about safety and personnel issues.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia held her own employee meetings last week. "Now the challenge is to put together a tentative plan for Wednesday and then an overall plan for the board," spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

Already, officials heard from a consultant that they are in dire need of new buses and better repair facilities. Board members also fielded more than 100 complaints from employees at town hall meetings.

"When you look at all the data points, there's obviously a need to significantly transform the transportation division," member Cindy Stuart said.

Member April Griffin, who organized most of the town hall meetings, said, "I think it's good that we have listened to people. And now I'm really ready to just come up with solutions."

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