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Hillsborough superintendent proposes fixes to school bus system

TAMPA — From the training they get on their first day of work to the food they can buy while their buses are inspected, transportation employees for Hillsborough County Public Schools can expect sweeping changes.

For students, that means fewer breakdowns, less doubling up on crowded buses, and a reduction in delays getting to and from school.

Subject to a School Board vote on June 10, the district also will buy 100 new buses. The system needs more than 500 in the next two years, according to a consultant. And it will have to wait six to eight months for delivery.

"Our fleet needs to be replenished, and we need to move forward with that," superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the board at a workshop Wednesday.

Elia's plan comes in response to employee complaints and media reports about over-aged buses, an inadequate maintenance department and widespread morale problems. Much of this was confirmed by consultant Tom Platt, who was hired after the board struggled with two proposals to buy new buses.

Nothing was said Wednesday about the cost of the improvements, which Platt estimated at $11 million to $16 million a year for a decade just to buy the buses. Board members Stacy White and April Griffin said they would oppose a property tax increase. Other than that, members generally supported Elia's preliminary plan.

The tone of the discussion was a departure from Tuesday's board meeting, when, for nearly 10 minutes, member Candy Olson chastised others on the board for subscribing to conspiracy theories and criticizing Elia too harshly.

While Olson did not mention anyone by name, Griffin has spoken publicly of her lack of confidence in the buses and the integrity of Elia's administration. When she was not permitted to sit in on district-led focus group meetings, she organized three town hall meetings of her own.

Wednesday, however, Griffin listened to Elia's presentation and said, "I'm ready to move forward. I think we have gathered enough information."

Elia said she wants to:

• Create a career ladder for mechanics to encourage them to seek more training.

• Make revisions to driver recruitment, training and personnel management. This could help cure a driver shortage last estimated at 95.

• Return to the practice of assigning exceptional student education staff to area offices to assist ESE drivers. Those duties were centralized when the district reorganized transportation in 2007.

• Replace a bus wash that was damaged when a bus hit it. Elia joked that if the new one isn't ready by August, she, deputy superintendent Cathy Valdes and facilities chief Chris Farkas "will be out there scrubbing buses."

• Encourage principals to be more supportive of drivers concerning student discipline. Riverview High School and Rodgers Middle School excel in that area, Elia said, and she'll ask their principals to work with others during the summer.

• Establish a superintendent's advisory committee on transportation.

Elia used employee complaints, the 27 focus group meetings and her own followup meetings with employees as the basis of her plan. Her findings were consistent with drivers' remarks at Griffin's meetings, with one exception.

While drivers complained frequently about their radios, Farkas said tests showed the radios work 95 percent of the time. That difference could exist for a number of reasons, he said.

A business was caught recently "pirating" on the district's airwaves. Once that stopped, service improved, he said.

Either way, Farkas said the district will explore ways to improve training and perhaps lengthen shifts at the dispatch center. "We want responsiveness from our communications department," he said.

Olson and member Cindy Stuart said to improve efficiency, the district should consider adjusting magnet routes where students don't often ride the bus.

"Why is the bus still coming by my house twice a day if there's nobody on it?" Stuart asked.

Board members also discussed the overall need to give drivers more respect.

"More celebration, more recognition," Olson said. "These people do heroic work every day, and we don't thank them enough."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough superintendent proposes fixes to school bus system 05/14/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 10:59pm]
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