Monday, January 22, 2018
Education

School bus chief resigns in Hillsborough County (with video)

TAMPA — John Franklin's seven-year tenure as chief of the Hillsborough County school bus system has ended, officials announced Wednesday, after months of public complaints about work conditions and student safety.

In an email, Franklin told the school district's new facilities chief, Chris Farkas, that he was grateful for the chance the district gave him to reorganize the system in 2007. "At this time, it is best that I explore other opportunities. I wish you and everyone else the best of luck," he wrote.

His resignation had been rumored for days. Nearly 100 employees have turned out in recent weeks at town hall meetings organized by School Board members. They described a range of problems, from roaches on the buses to special-needs children dropped off on street corners.

Many mentioned Franklin, who joined the district in 2007 and earned $104,884 a year.

Carrying more than 90,000 students each day, the bus system is the largest transit system in the Tampa Bay area. Directing it is a formidable job, as the district has dozens of magnet programs and a growing population of riders with medical needs.

The reorganization that Franklin led resulted in automated route planning and fewer bus stops in some areas. The district saved millions of dollars and weathered the recession without teacher layoffs or furloughs.

But it was slow to replace buses, and now has one of the oldest fleets in the state. In recent months there also has been visible dissent among employees. As drivers have spoken out publicly, some managers in the maintenance department have quit, citing labor disputes that threaten the reliability of the buses.

The district has hired a consultant to assess the department and help with the purchase of new buses. That report is due in May. The district also convened focus groups and is investigating allegations employees have made in a memo and at board meetings.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has promised a comprehensive action plan that will reflect all these efforts.

After Franklin's resignation, Elia issued a news release that thanked him for his service. "I have reiterated to our transportation team that our goal remains unchanged — we work together to safely transport children every day," she said.

In a phone message to about 1,200 transportation employees, she alluded to unnamed "forces at play inside and outside of our district that are intent on causing dissension and pressures, and making our jobs more difficult. That has led good people to choose to leave our district to pursue other opportunities."

Board member April Griffin, who launched the town hall meetings after she was kept out of a district-led focus group, wasted no time in responding.

"How does she know what the intentions of these unnamed forces are?" Griffin wrote in a Facebook post. "I can only speak for myself, so here you go." Griffin wrote that her intentions are to keep children, employees and the public at large safe.

In an interview, Elia did not say who she believed the forces were, but said she was not referring to Griffin or member Susan Valdes. Rather, she said, she wanted to urge the employees to "keep their focus" on their work.

The plan now, Elia said, is to conduct a national search for Franklin's replacement while Farkas, a former social studies teacher, high school principal and area administrator, runs the department in the interim.

Board member Candy Olson said she was not surprised by Franklin's resignation. "He didn't exactly have a choice," she said.

"He was dealing with factors such as the recession and the Legislature, and he has been attacked, which I think was very unfair. He did the job the board asked him to do, he worked harder than anyone and he accomplished a lot. You can't take that away from him, even if you drive him out."

Having attended the last town hall meeting, Olson said she believes the employees' concerns are about inconvenience and inefficiency, more than safety. "We see incident reports all the time, and you don't see evidence of a lack of safety," she said. "If the buses were not safe, the drivers wouldn't drive them."

As for Elia's statement about forces causing dissension, Olson said, "I wouldn't have said it."

Coming on the heels of other resignations, including that of administration manager Willie Campbell, Olson said Franklin's departure is a loss and an opportunity to bring in a new team.

The job will be daunting, board members agreed. "I think for a person who loves a challenge and likes to team-build, that will be a good opportunity," Valdes said.

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.

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