TAMPA — Superintendent MaryEllen Elia got an earful Thursday from frustrated parents and School Board members, meeting for the first time since the botched transportation overhaul at the beginning of the year.
School officials still are answering questions and fielding complaints from parents on the transportation hotline. Once the urgency has passed, board members expect a full explanation from Elia on what went wrong.
"Our performance has clearly been unacceptable," said Elia, who has apologized repeatedly since the beginning of the school year. "As superintendent, I take full responsibility for that."
Nearly a dozen parents came to the meeting to protest the elimination of bus service to county after-school programs. The district has toughened the standards about which programs it will serve, which knocked bus runs from 17 schools off the list. It continues to provide service to 34 programs.
Driving 90,000 students to and from school daily is a major challenge for school officials. Hillsborough is short 150 bus drivers, and has been spending $17-million to $24-million more than it receives each year to transport students.
"At some point, we have to decide: Are we going to take money from teacher salaries and transport children," board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said. "This is the reality we're in right now."
But this year's problems were unacceptable, board members agree. Scores of parents complained of receiving no notification of their children's bus stops. When they tried to call, they encountered jammed phone lines.
Faliero promised improvement next year, when the remaining half of the county will see bus route changes. She said parents will get detailed information on bus routes by the end of the school year. Principals will receive detailed information much sooner.
She urged parents to "hang in there" as the district continues to review problems. Three weeks into the school year, Hillsborough has received 335 requests for bus stop safety reviews. It has made 85 changes and is still reviewing another 103 stops.
Board members also lack answers for the parents at Maniscalco Elementary, where about 60 students lost transportation to a county after-school program at Nye Park.
Since it didn't notify families until the last minute, the district agreed to keep busing children to Nye Park until the beginning of October. But the standards now in place make Nye Park ineligible for a permanent bus.
Instead, the district is offering a ride to a program at Northlakes Park, which is about 7 miles from the school. Nye Park is only 2 miles from Maniscalco, but lies just outside the boundary for transportation.
"It just doesn't make logical sense to us," parent Melanie Leder said. "We really feel our children were not considered in this."
School officials said the bus routes mostly head in the direction of Northlakes and away from Nye. The board agreed to keep looking at the issue, noting that an exception for Maniscalco would create demands for similar treatment at other schools. School officials also are discussing options with the county government.
"I don't know what we can do, but we need to find some kinds of solutions to help our families keep their kids safe," said board member Susan Valdes, drawing applause from the parents.
Board members also agreed to lobby the Legislature to review how it pays for student transportation. They said it's no longer reasonable to expect students to walk two miles to school. One mile would be more appropriate. The district also will seek a review of what is considered a hazardous walking condition and eligible for transportation.