It's not surprising that the Hillsborough County School District's plan to streamline bus service has caused problems that have marred the opening of the school year. After all, the goal is to save money, and saving money means eliminating routes. What's troubling is that officials were caught off guard by how the changes would affect so many families. That shows weak planning and communication from the start. The district needs to get its driving corps fully staffed and do what it can to accommodate children who need transportation — and parents are going to have to accept more responsibility for getting children to and from school as the price of tax relief.
The district seems to have gotten a grip on the most immediate problem. It improved service at a call center to answer questions from parents about when and where their children should expect a bus. Officials and parents alike have had time to accustom themselves to the overhaul, and the district is making some reasonable accommodations in hardship cases. What looks good on paper is not always practical, and the district should keep an open mind.
There is no painless way to cut bus service. The district needs to consolidate the number of routes to maximize the fleet and get students to school on time. Hillsborough has tightened the rules for service, which cut bus runs from 17 schools to after-school centers. (It continues to bus to 34 programs.) But its corps of 1,046 bus drivers is about 166 short of where it needs to be. The district also spends between $17-million and $24-million more than it receives each year to transport students. That level is hard to sustain or justify even if the money were available. Better to spend it on teachers and in the classroom.
Even the best-designed transportation system cannot work if there aren't nearly enough workers to run it. The district needs to raise drivers' salaries to attract more applicants. That's about the most the district can do to improve a working environment that is, to say the least, nerve-rattling. Parents also need to realize that there is a limit to what taxpayers can do in transporting their children both to school and to after-school programs. The issue is not whether after-school programs are valuable, but who is responsible for a child when he or she is not being educated, and to what extent should money intended for the classroom be siphoned away for non-instructional expenses.
Elected School Board members need to be more candid with the public and have these discussions; the economic climate dictates it. The district and parents should work together as partners to find sensible solutions.