TAMPA — True to her word, Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia is meeting with employees in the district's troubled transportation department.
It's been a busy week with some conversations beginning as early as 5 a.m. and others lasting into the evening.
On school district Twitter feeds, Elia is shown serving pizza and speaking one-on-one with drivers about their concerns. She served doughnuts too, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
Coming after 27 focus group meetings, the sessions offered few surprises but some useful suggestions, Elia said.
"The tone of the meetings were very professional," Elia said. "I was out there to discuss the issues with my employees, and to search for solutions. We had some very positive results."
Two School Board workshops are planned on the transportation issue, both open to the public.
On Wednesday morning, board members will discuss a consultant's study that urges the district to invest tens of millions in its bus system or consider reducing service.
The consultants had similar warnings when they worked with the district in 2007. But, although the district cut back on "courtesy" busing within two miles of schools and found other ways to streamline the system, it did not implement other recommendations.
Two examples that were cited in the most recent report: The district did not adjust driver and attendant wages enough to ensure a reliable workforce. And facilities, including repair shops, remain out of date as the department struggles to maintain one of the oldest bus fleets in the state.
The recession likely prevented those investments, they wrote. One suggestion raised in Elia's meetings was to build mobile repair shops to cut down on the need to tow broken-down buses.
A second workshop is planned for May 14 to discuss Elia's plan. It will pull together a number of investigations and studies, including some that were prompted by a complaint from four trainers.
Common themes in this week's meetings are training, salaries and a desire for new buses and equipment.
At a series of town hall meetings organized by school board members, employees also described management and morale problems, trouble with the bus routing system, safety concerns that often involved special-needs students, and a lack of support when students misbehave.
Elia pointed out Tuesday that the district tried twice in 2013 to buy buses. The board rejected both proposals, saying the cost calculations were flawed.
"The board asked us to hire a consultant, which we did," Elia said. "And he told us to buy more buses."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.