TAMPA — After months of focus groups and town hall meetings, heated exchanges and harsh allegations, the Hillsborough County school district is poised to restructure its transportation department and buy the first batch of new buses.
Subject to a vote today by the School Board, the district will order 100 Thomas Built buses for about $11 million, with more such purchases likely on a yearly basis.
Mobile repair shops will help keep older buses on the road. A communications consultant will sort out problems with the radio system. A transportation consultant's work will be expanded, with thought given to alternative fuels.
Newly hired supervisors will see to the needs of disabled students. Mechanics will get a tool allowance. The district will buy bus lifts and a bus wash.
And there will be ongoing training for drivers and their supervisors.
"It's a very, very comprehensive report," board attorney Jim Porter said of superintendent MaryEllen Elia's plan.
While it's impossible to predict how the board will react, he said, "I do think the board is anxious to vote on it and move on."
The 3 p.m. meeting, coming after 10 days of high school graduations, has a packed agenda.
But for months, transportation has been in the spotlight.
Two scuttled bus purchases in 2013 led the board to hire School Bus Consultants, which issued a harsh assessment of the department. While that was happening, four trainers accused their supervisors of telling them not to document mistakes involving disabled students. A repair shop supervisor quit, saying problems there were so severe, he wouldn't trust the buses.
More resignations followed, including that of transportation chief John Franklin. Drivers complained of moldy buses, roadside breakdowns and a lack of respect from students, parents and the district.
While the district has yet not replaced Franklin, Elia is moving ahead. Her staff investigated the trainers' allegations, finding no fault with their bosses. And she's drawn up a proposal to replace buses that, in some cases, have been on the road since 1994.
While no one denies the need for new buses, a local vendor that was not selected plans to address the board today, complaining about the process and the district's choice of Thomas Built.
"I'm going to do my best in the three minutes allotted to me," said Chris Rustman, president of Florida Transportation Systems, which sells Blue Bird, a competing brand.
Rustman said district officials can save hundreds of thousands of dollars by buying Blue Bird. Regardless of the brand, he said, they can save even more if they wait until July 1, when prices will drop. He contends that the consultant used incorrect information about the competing brands and that the methodology changed in a way that favored Thomas Built.
Tom Platt, the consultant, did not return a call for comment.
The Blue Bird dealer also alleged last week that the district might have violated sunshine laws when Platt assembled a team of employees to help him design the model he used to rank the brands. That group met without public notice.
But both Porter and school district attorney Tom Gonzalez said there was no sunshine violation, as the group merely gave factual input to the consultant.
"The consultant did not, nor was he asked, to recommend the brand of bus to be purchased," Gonzalez wrote in his response. "The group made no decisions, nor was it asked to."
Rustman said Monday that he will not file a formal challenge based on the sunshine issue. But, he said, "I don't think the board is being given good information."
Rustman's company recently offered to sell the district 350 propane buses, a deal that included bank financing and guaranteed fuel prices for two years.
While nothing came of that offer, Rustman said, "Propane buses are still less expensive than anything they're talking about today."
In its report, the district included a list of funding sources that will not require a tax increase.
Instead, money for the new buses will come from current property tax revenues, Hillsborough's community investment tax, parimutuel revenues, cash raised by selling old buses, and general fund revenues if needed.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]