Thursday, January 18, 2018
Education

Pasco superintendent promises improved school bus operations

LAND O'LAKES — The first week of school brought the usual spate of bus complaints to Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning's email box.

Kids arrived home an hour or more late. Full buses passed children waiting at assigned stops, without a word as to how the kids might get to class. Routes changed at the last minute, inconveniencing parents who had rescheduled their lives to be available for pickup time.

Browning was appalled.

"In the elections business … you have one day that you're working for," said Browning, a former election supervisor and secretary of state. "There's no do-over. You've got to get it right."

That means planning and preparing for worst-case scenarios, and knowing what to do when something unexpected happens.

Yet in the school district, he said, no one seemed to have a sense of urgency about the first day of classes, which Browning referred to as "our election day." After all, there would be the second day, followed by the third.

"What I kept hearing was, it's really no different than what it was like last year," Browning said. "My head starts to spin a little bit, and it feels like it's going to explode, because from my vantage point it doesn't have to be that way."

So rather than make excuses, the superintendent assigned two of his top deputies — assistant superintendent Ray Gadd and executive director for operations Ray Bonti — to fix things.

They called each parent who complained, to listen and seek solutions. Then they aimed to find short-term repairs.

Connerton Elementary parent Dave Riggs said his daughter's bus arrived at the afternoon bus stop late more than once. He e-mailed Browning, and got a call back within a day.

In short order, the school changed its traffic patterns — Bonti said the original model caused congestion, delaying bus arrival and departure — so the buses were more timely.

"It was an excellent alternative," said Riggs.

The improvements must be longer lasting, though, Gadd acknowledged. And that means changing the culture of the transportation department.

He gave the example of a parent who called to say his child rode the bus home two hours. When Gadd contacted the department, he was told by the end of the week the ride would be better at 90 minutes or so.

That was acceptable in the department. But not to Gadd.

On Friday, he and Bonti will sit with transportation leaders to review procedures and policies as a precursor to rewriting the rules.

Bus rides longer than an hour aren't okay, Gadd said. Buses should not leave children by the side of the road without explanation, he added. Being the first day of school is no excuse.

"They do this every year. It's predictable," Gadd said. "They need to have responses that are predictable."

Plans also call for creation of a transportation call center for parents, the addition of global tracking systems for buses, and the streamlining of operations at schools. Different principals have varying procedures for things like whether to let buses leave school in inclement weather, for instance, or at what point to notify parents that buses are running late, Bonti said.

The district also might need to add more buses to the roads, Browning said.

"I am not going to sacrifice happy parents for us plugging a budget hole," he said, noting the district removed 27 buses from operation this year to cut $800,000 in spending. "If we need to put another bus on the road, I'm going to find the money to put another bus on the road."

Dana Ricciardo, whose 6-year-old daughter attends West Zephyrhills Elementary, is watching. She complained after her daughter arrived, sweaty and needing to pee, at the after-school PLACE program at Chester Taylor Elementary after 5 p.m.

West Zephyrhills lets out at 3:40 p.m.

"I was very upset," Ricciardo said. Gadd "told me they were working with the transportation department to get the buses better routed."

She gave him a week. He gave her his cell phone number.

"If I don't see a major improvement, they'll be hearing from me daily," Ricciardo said.

Browning pledged progress.

"When you put everything into perspective, we transported 35,000-plus kids and we had relatively few problems," he said. "But am I happy with that? We can do better."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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