TAMPA — Like so many things with the Hillsborough County School Board, Tuesday's discussion on what school buses to buy elicited remarks about trust and transparency, doubts and dissension.
But in the end, the board voted 5-2 to buy 100 Thomas Built buses for about $11 million, a step that could help reverse months of rancor involving school transportation.
The buses won't arrive until February. And it's just the start of a process that most would agree is long overdue, as Hillsborough's 1,400 buses are among the oldest in the state.
But the decision, which came after six hours of discussion with members April Griffin and Susan Valdes voting no, is a step forward for a district that has fielded loud complaints in the past four months from employees in its transportation department.
Bus purchases have been on hold for longer than that. Twice in 2013, the board rejected purchase proposals, saying the terms were not clear and the math did not make sense.
Board members hired School Bus Consultants later in the year to assess the department and help them move forward. While that effort was under way, large numbers of employees complained in focus groups and town hall meetings about substandard buses, oppressive work conditions and student-behavior issues that created hazards on the road.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has been putting together a reorganization plan for the department in recent months, and she had a chance to present it at Tuesday's meeting.
The plan covers everything from driver training to better repair facilities and a more reliable radio system. Already, Elia has met with a new advisory committee on transportation.
"We'll be having monthly meetings to get feedback as we implement," she said.
Elia said she is moving more supervisors to the area offices to help with the transportation of exceptional students. That work was centralized in 2007, when the district reorganized the department to save money during the recession.
The district is working on protocols to make sure schools respond appropriately when students misbehave on the bus, she said. And pay scales are under review.
Board members generally approved the plan, although there was a discussion about how involved they should be in overseeing it. Griffin wanted the board to vote on it formally at its next meeting. That measure failed, but staff will provide updates at future meetings.
Things did not go as smoothly with the choice of a bus brand.
As expected, the president and attorney for the Blue Bird bus dealer spoke against the purchase, and the process the district used to select Thomas Built, their competitor.
"Make no mistake, this process was not transparent," said attorney Ed Turanchik. He contends that meetings the consultant called to design an evaluative tool should have been noticed publicly. Attorneys for the school district disagree.
Chris Rustman, president of Blue Bird dealer Florida Transportation Systems, said, "a lot of erroneous information was used, a lot of misinformation was used" to rank the three bus brands that the state allows.
Rustman and Turanchik made a case in recent weeks that Blue Bird is less expensive and that all prices could drop on July 1, which marks the next purchasing cycle overseen by the state.
Valdes thought the points they raised were compelling enough to hold off on a decision.
"I don't know why we would purchase a more expensive bus, knowingly," she said. "I want to move forward but I want to move forward very smartly."
Griffin agreed, and pointed out that the Blue Bird dealer is a Tampa-based company.
Griffin also had concerns about a proposal to expand the consultant's contract to include issues such as alternative fuels.
While she likes alternative fuels, Griffin said the consultant, who was hired at the suggestion of board member Cindy Stuart, was not responsive enough to board members. It also used proprietary software to rank the bus brands, taking transparency out of the process, she said.
Board member Candy Olson said that shouldn't be an issue. Years ago, she said, the board hired a consultant who used propriety software to recommend school attendance boundary changes, with great success.
"I think someone who develops a way to get us objective information and uses a computer program is well within his rights to do that," she said.
They wound up approving the consultant's new contract, 5-2, with Griffin and Valdes dissenting.
The district has yet to replace its transportation chief, John Franklin, who resigned in April at the height of public complaints.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected]com or (813) 226-3356.