It should come as no surprise that transportation consultants found Hillsborough County's school busing system needs an overhaul. The district should heed the consultants' recommendations and move quickly to replace an aging fleet and hire more drivers. With 94,000 students aboard its buses each day, the district should act now to remedy its most significant issues before the next school year.
Underinvestment in several key areas has caused Hillsborough's busing system to become "stressed to the breaking point," according to a report that will be presented Wednesday by School Bus Consultants, or SBC. The consultants said the age of Hillsborough's fleet — ranked 59th in age among Florida's 67 school districts — is of particular concern. SBC recommended that the district begin replacing buses immediately at a cost of $11 million to $16 million a year. If the district cannot afford to buy new buses, the consultants suggested leasing them to avoid triggering "systemic service delivery failures in the near future." The district has 1,064 drivers, including substitutes, to service 1,084 daily bus routes. The consultants recommended the district focus on recruiting and retention to fill the gap. Wage increases across several areas also were suggested.
The report comes during a tumultuous period in the department. The district's transportation chief resigned in April after a steady stream of complaints surfaced around substandard equipment, lack of training, low morale and unsupportive management. Employees, ranging from whistle-blowers in senior training positions to disgruntled drivers and mechanics, came forward to decry department policies and procedures. The district began investigating the department after it learned about the death of Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old special needs student who died in 2012 a day after going into respiratory failure on a school bus.
For months, School Board members have been listening to the concerns of transportation employees at meetings held around the county. But they said they would wait to take action until they had the consultant's findings. With the results in hand, School Board members need to take action. The department's challenges are many, and the district should address each one. The easiest and quickest booster shot officials can give the department is to buy new buses. The district's fleet has about 24 breakdowns a day on 2.2 percent of daily routes. That's far above the industry standard of 0.5 percent.
The state already has bus purchasing guidelines in place, and the district should follow them. Although Hillsborough has only bought 31 new buses out of a fleet of 1,400 since 2010, it knows well how to procure and dispatch them. It is encouraging that the district appears poised to respond with a sense of urgency. It shouldn't take long for board members to digest the report and move toward the real work of getting new buses on the roads.