Saturday, April 21, 2018
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]

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