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Busing problems may have solution

Hillsborough's school buses have struggled to get children to school on time in a sprawling county.

Now, finally, ideas are surfacing to fix continuing problems.

This week, school officials reviewed the preliminary findings of the outside consultants hired to help the troubled busing system. The suggestions from Management Partnership Services have started discussions about major changes like:

- Revamping bus routes.

- Staggering school start times based on traffic patterns to improve bus run times.

- Restructuring the transportation department and modernizing it with technology enhancements like GPS tracking systems.

"It's going to be a huge undertaking," said Karen Strickland, general transportation manager. "It's a great opportunity to make our department as efficient as we would like to be."

Work is beginning. For four months, the consultants have been studying the system. They've shared their initial thoughts, with a final report and recommendations forthcoming. The School Board may meet to discuss the proposals in January.

School officials say the first step is to change staffing. Right now, officials said, those managing bus routes don't really have time to assess what's working or not.

"They put a Band-Aid on here, they put a Band-Aid on there," Strickland said.

By next school year, however, Hillsborough would like to begin testing new ideas, which may include adding new routes and combining students from different schools on the same buses. The district is also considering staggering bell schedules.

"Is it really necessary for every elementary school to open at the same time?" said Jim Hamilton, an administrator overseeing the busing review. "If rush hour starts earlier in outlying parts of the county, maybe we should start later, so we're on the roads after the rush hour."

Hillsborough buses have about 92,000 daily riders - about half of those in the district.

Technology enhancements could lead to improved transportation. The consultants suggest adding GPS technology and better communications systems.

Hamilton said such investments could pay off, with better routes meaning lower gas bills. And the district may end up needing fewer employees, so they could pay higher wages.

The union representing bus drivers applauded the review, which noted that the district should rethink drivers' salaries.

"There were a lot of issues there that we've been bringing up for the last few years," said Luis Perez, president of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation. "It's a good step forward."

Some findings echo issues raised this summer in a review conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, a consortium of large urban districts.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.

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