Sunday, December 17, 2017
Education

Hillsborough School Board confronts its ailing bus system

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school district can afford to correct tens of millions of dollars of deficiencies in its transportation system, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Wednesday. And, she said, it can do so without scrubbing its new security guard program.

"We will be purchasing a large number of buses in a relatively short period of time," Elia said after a School Board workshop to review a consultant's assessment of the bus service.

While some members lamented not paying attention to problems that include an aging bus fleet and an inadequate maintenance department, Elia said the board knew full well that spending slowed during the recession to protect teachers' jobs.

"We did not purchase infrastructure," she said. "It was a conscious decision. We are now reversing that because we are in a different position."

Elia also assured the public in a news conference that the buses are safe, echoing a statement by consultant Tom Platt.

"The fleet is safe," Platt said. "The fleet is operational. But the fleet is old, and the fleet has been getting progressively older."

His report showed the rate of breakdowns — 24 a day — is more than four times the industry norm. And some board members pointed out that it isn't safe for children to be stranded in a broken bus on the side of the road.

What it will cost to bring the system up to standard is unclear. The board has yet to decide if it will buy, lease or lease-to-own, or how aggressively it will replace buses that are up to 20 years old.

To replace all that are over 15 years old, the district would need to buy 542 this year and next. At roughly $100,000 each, that's $54 million just to get started.

But, under that scenario, the district would need to replace those 542 buses 15 years from now. It might be better to buy 100 a year and upgrade the repair shops, Platt said.

Elia said funding is available from numerous sources. The district has $7 million it did not spend in 2013, when the board rejected two plans to buy buses. More money is expected from the state this year. And the district could tap its contingency fund, member Candy Olson said.

Member Cindy Stuart, however, suggested putting the brakes on a new armed security plan — something she opposed from the start, saying it is not needed and will ultimately cost about $4 million a year. "We're in crisis mode, financially," Stuart said. But Elia insisted, "This is not a financial crisis."

The board in December approved the first of four phases that will result in armed security at all elementary schools. But progress is slow because the district just replaced its security chief. Elia promised an update at the next board meeting Tuesday.

Then on Wednesday, she will unveil a preliminary transportation plan, based on focus group findings and other information gathered in recent months.

Platt warned against moving slowly. "The longer we defer, the worse the problem gets," he said.

He described a multitude of problems causing the system to deteriorate rapidly.

Among them:

• One-fifth of the mechanic positions in the maintenance department are vacant.

• Managers who are supposed to help drivers with issues such as routing are out of reach because of the frequent bus breakdowns.

• A driver shortage persists, although Elia said a recruitment program has cut vacancies from 185 to about 100.

As the board works toward a solution, members discussed a range of options. These might include collaborating with mass transit, adjusting bell times, renegotiating union contracts, changing how transportation is handled for field trips, and even raising property taxes.

Member Susan Valdes said the board should ask for quarterly reports and should have provided more oversight in the past.

"We obviously took our eye off the ball somewhere," Olson agreed. But she said it would be unfair to blame the administration in years when state infrastructure funding all but disappeared.

"Let's remember that our friends in Tallahassee have not been our friends," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

Comments
Top USF Health official leaves amid questions of assistant’s special treatment

Top USF Health official leaves amid questions of assistant’s special treatment

TAMPA — A high-ranking University of South Florida Health official has resigned amid internal concerns that he was giving special treatment to his assistant.After an internal investigation, USF System President Judy Genshaft was poised last month to ...
Published: 12/15/17
Hillsborough school district and its teachers are at a bargaining impasse, but still talking

Hillsborough school district and its teachers are at a bargaining impasse, but still talking

TAMPA — A months-long conflict over planned pay raises has moved to a new phase with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association declaring a bargaining impasse with the public school district.The two sides, which began negotiations in late spring...
Published: 12/15/17
Pinellas schools sheltered thousands during Irma. Here’s what it cost

Pinellas schools sheltered thousands during Irma. Here’s what it cost

Three months later, the Pinellas County school district has totaled up the costs of operating 16 schools as shelters for 25,000 evacuees during Hurricane Irma.The district is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for a reimbursemen...
Published: 12/15/17
Love of science is the goal, now that every Pinellas elementary school has a lab

Love of science is the goal, now that every Pinellas elementary school has a lab

SEMINOLE — It was hard for the second-graders at Orange Grove Elementary to resist the urge to rush into the school’s science lab and tinker with the colorful objects neatly arranged on each table.Thursday was just their second time in the lab this y...
Published: 12/15/17
Florida lawmakers want stronger college free speech rules amid First Amendment flareups

Florida lawmakers want stronger college free speech rules amid First Amendment flareups

Rising up in defiance to Richard Spencer, hundreds of University of Florida students sounded off in a deafening chant."Go home, Spencer!" they shouted, as the exasperated white nationalist paced the stage, pleading to be heard.Were the students exerc...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

BROOKSVILLE — The new year could bring about new beginnings for at-risk girls in Hernando County.Pending a vote by the School Board next month, PACE Center for Girls, an alternative education program for middle- and high-school students, could open a...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17

Pasco school district, employees reach contract agreement

The raises for Pasco County school district employees aren’t as high as anyone would like, but they’re now part of a signed tentative contract deal reached just before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.If ratified by the staff and the School Board, the agreements ...
Published: 12/13/17
For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

LAND O’LAKES — At Bexley Elementary School in Land O’Lakes, students are throwing paper airplanes — with the help of a high tech computerized launcher. They’re also bowling — with a little aid from computerized drones. And when they get around to it,...
Published: 12/13/17

Proposal to rollback early learning programs could bring Citrus into Pasco-Hernando coalition

Some Florida lawmakers have not hidden their desire to scale back the statewide number of early learning coalitions that oversee child care and preschool programs, including Voluntary Prekindergarten.The state Office of Early Learning has now issued ...
Published: 12/13/17
Brink Foundation, school district create Town ’N Country STEM hub

Brink Foundation, school district create Town ’N Country STEM hub

TAMPA — Elementary school students programmed an electronic mouse to make its way through a maze.Middle school students directed an electronic vehicle to stop on a dime, then use its arms to locate and lift a tiny cube.When the demonstration was done...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/14/17