Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Education

Carlton: Good and bad news in school bus mess

The latest news from Hillsborough County's troubled school bus system is both positive and disappointingly familiar.

The eighth-largest school district in America is still dealing with the 2012 tragedy involving a disabled 7-year-old student who died a day after a medical emergency on her bus ride home. Just this month, Isabella Herrera's mother tearfully told the School Board that not enough had been done since then to protect children like Isabella.

There's more: A litany of complaints from school transportation employees range from an aging bus fleet — the ninth oldest in Florida's 67 school districts — to safety, management and rock-bottom morale.

Given that these are the people responsible for getting more than 90,000 kids safely to and from school daily, what we have here is a listing ship in need of a steady hand.

So there is good news in movement, in transportation focus groups, town hall meetings and investigations expected to be ready next month, and even in talk of buying badly needed buses. After the death last month of a Middleton High student killed crossing busy Hillsborough Avenue from home to get to school — the second student killed there since 2011 — school officials did the right thing by sending a daily shuttle bus for the kids who live in those apartments.

And this week, the resignation of the school bus chief running that troubled department had definite potential for a fresh start.

But has no one in this mix learned we can do without the drama? The long-standing — and distracting — power struggle between the superintendent and certain School Board members reared its head yet again this week.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia sent a recorded phone message to transportation employees announcing the resignation of their boss. Included in it was this cryptic aside: "Unfortunately, there are forces at play inside and outside of our district that are intent on causing dissension and pressures, and making our jobs more difficult."

She didn't say "dark" forces loomed, but it seemed implied.

Later Elia said this was not a specific elbow thrown to her perennial detractors, board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes, but a general call to stay focused. But it sounded like an unnecessary parry — and a surprising one, given that Elia is usually more savvy at staying out of the fray.

Griffin fired back on Facebook, and here we are again, in the midst of drama going on so long it's hard to remember when it wasn't.

But one thing is clear: Even with strong personalities and warring priorities, it does not have to work this way. Remember when you could count on the Hillsborough County Commission to be the most dysfunctional bunch in town, our Official Bickersons? Elected officials at county center have since struck a note that, if not cohesive, at least gives the impression county business trumps power plays.

School officials could also take a note from Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden, who moved the office from a nightmarish bureaucracy a citizen dreaded to visit to one noted for efficiency and customer service. Hey, it can happen.

Personalities and grudges aside, children's safety is at stake here. It's time to focus on the fixes and not on the forces, real or imagined, that brought these problems to light.

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