Thursday, November 23, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Hillsborough student transport needs an overhaul

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The resignation Wednesday of school bus chief John Franklin marks a fresh and necessary start in cleaning up the Hillsborough County School District's troubled transportation department. The problems of the past few years have been too many and varied to blame on a single person, but his departure clears the way for a fresh look at the operation. With several internal reviews coming to a close next month, officials should provide a candid picture of the problems and a meaningful plan for correcting them.

Franklin's resignation comes as the district prepares to act on several investigations that followed the 2012 death of Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old disabled student who died a day after experiencing respiratory failure on a school bus. While the district improved training for aides and drivers in caring for special-needs children, the tragedy gave rise to broader complaints about the procedures for reacting in an emergency and the quality of school buses and mechanics.

The findings of those reviews are expected in early May, and superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Wednesday that Franklin's resignation followed a meeting Friday with the consultant hired to prepare the report. Still, she said the consultant's review had turned up no surprises. Most of the complaints made public by department employees point to fundamental problems with management, hiring and training. Some drivers complain the buses are in poor shape and that mechanics are not skilled or conscientious about their work. They contend that rather than address concerns, managers have dissuaded employees from speaking out — contributing to a cycle of denial that threatens student safety.

Transporting 94,000 students a day is challenging, but this department seems plagued with recurring problems. The Hillsborough district botched its last round of bus purchases last year, and now it fields the 59th oldest fleet of Florida's 67 school districts, with buses averaging 14 years old, compared with 10 years in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando Counties. Certainly new buses would help over time in cutting down on repairs to worn-out vehicles. But the larger problem is a lack of attention to detail and urgency in getting this operation up to speed.

Elia said she will respond to the reviews in a comprehensive way that addresses safety and operational concerns. That is essential if the district hopes to fix these problems and attract a quality candidate to take over the transportation department. No quality candidates will respond to a national search to preside over more of the same. The district should use this discussion not as a public relations exercise but as a demonstration that it is committed to adopting reforms, and backing them up with the right people and money.

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