The plan for improving the Hillsborough County School District's busing operation has all the necessary components: new buses; better pay and working conditions for drivers and mechanics; smarter use of training and technology. The only thing that remains to be seen is how committed the district is to quickly following through with reforms that will take years and require tens of millions of dollars. The School Board should send a reassuring signal next month by supporting a hefty down payment on this critical safety effort.
As ambitious as the plan seeks to be, the approach outlined Wednesday by superintendent MaryEllen Elia came as no big surprise. The School District has shortchanged its transportation department for years, with predictable results. In recent months, that neglect boiled over as employees complained about a rash of problems, from dealing with unreliable buses, broken radios and incompetent mechanics to pay, staffing and management failures that sapped morale and threatened the safety of a system that transports 94,000 students a day.
The plan Elia unveiled addresses problems across this wide front, and she shores it up by promising to bring a serious and long-range spending plan to the table by this summer. Next month, she will propose spending $11 million on 100 new buses this year. In July, Elia intends to roll out a five-year plan that details how the district will replace aging buses on an ongoing basis. The superintendent also plans to conduct a pay and step study for mechanics and drivers, a move aimed at recruiting and retaining talent. The plan features other smaller but equally vital components. The district wants to place smaller and more mobile repair operations closer to the field. To help boost employee morale, Elia wants to have food trucks visit repair centers while drivers wait to have their buses serviced. And she envisions more paid training opportunities for staff. Already, the district has spent $250,000 to construct a bus wash that will be open by August. And it is addressing problems with bus radios, in part by stopping pirating of the district's radio frequency.
The district appears to be on the right track. But Elia's plan, which board members embraced Wednesday, will require real money and a sustained commitment. In a blistering report released earlier this month, School Bus Consultants said it would take $11 million to $16 million a year for 14 years for Hillsborough to get its fleet up to speed. More than 25 percent of Hillsborough's buses are at least 15 years old.
Only a sustained investment in pay, better working conditions and new buses will turn Hillsborough's situation around. Elia should set a strong, clear path forward in the coming months, setting expectations for spending and committing the district to the plans she has set. The School Board should remain committed to this priority for years to come. With a road map for change in hand, the challenge for Elia and board members is to follow through.