Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Education

New school bus purchase is up for a vote in Hillsborough

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]

Comments
Sarasota student under fire over his racist ‘promposal’

Sarasota student under fire over his racist ‘promposal’

The Sarasota County School District has begun to address the community after a Riverview High School student’s racist prom proposal over the weekend went viral, including reaching out to the Sarasota chapter of the NAACP.High school senior Noah Crowl...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Battle continues over west Pasco school rezoning

Jim Stanley does not give up without a fight.The west Pasco County parent who brought down the school district’s 2017 attendance zone revisions, leading the administration to change its procedures along the way, has filed a new challenge to the syst...
Published: 04/24/18
Crews Lake eighth-grader already capable musician

Crews Lake eighth-grader already capable musician

SPRING HILL — Rose Dodd, 2 months old, couldn’t yet grasp a rattle, but there she was years ago at hand-bell choir practice at Keystone United Methodist Church in Odessa.Rose, 14, a Crews Lakes Middle School eighth-grader, is back at hand-bell practi...
Published: 04/24/18
Hillsborough: No way we can afford teacher raises this year

Hillsborough: No way we can afford teacher raises this year

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is in bad financial shape and its reputation for sound management is perhaps undeserved, the district’s own fiscal team testified Monday in a hearing concerning teacher salaries.The district "made finan...
Published: 04/23/18

School news for April 27

School Calendar• May 17-20: High school graduations• May 25: Last day of school for studentsBriefs• School Safety Town Hall Meetings will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 2 at River Ridge Middle/High, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey and 6 to 8 p....
Published: 04/23/18
A Florida school shooting suspect charged with terrorism says ‘sorry’ to injured student

A Florida school shooting suspect charged with terrorism says ‘sorry’ to injured student

The young man in a white jail jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled, looked past the throng of reporters pointing microphones toward his face, barely opening his mouth as he answered questions."I shot through the door," he said, looking at a female repor...
Published: 04/21/18
After months, no action on Hillsborough’s substitute teacher problem

After months, no action on Hillsborough’s substitute teacher problem

TAMPA — Confronted in late 2017 with reports of misconduct by substitute teachers hired through a contractor, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said he would ask tough questions and demand answers. He had his lawyer, Jeff Gibson, ...
Published: 04/21/18
Tampa Bay students voice opinions on gun laws during school walkouts

Tampa Bay students voice opinions on gun laws during school walkouts

Nicole Leary and Taylor Redington stood outside St. Petersburg High School on Friday morning with parents and protesters who had gathered with bullhorns and signs. In a few minutes they would lead about 70 students on a walk to City Hall, joining oth...
Published: 04/20/18
Official: Shotgun in guitar case was used in school shooting

Official: Shotgun in guitar case was used in school shooting

FORT LAUDERDALE — A gunman who carried a shotgun in a guitar case opened fire Friday in a Florida high school, wounding one student before he was arrested on a day planned for a national classroom walkout to protest gun violence, authorities said. It...
Published: 04/20/18
Eakins: New ‘achievement zone’ would lift struggling schools

Eakins: New ‘achievement zone’ would lift struggling schools

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins is preparing to reorganize his cabinet — for the third time since 2015 — in an effort to coordinate programs at the district’s highest-needs schools.In an interview this week, Eakins descr...
Published: 04/20/18