After botching the rollout of bus route changes this fall, Hillsborough school officials are calling off plans for more sweeping revisions next year.
That affects families around New Tampa, the university area, Brandon and Plant City - all slated for overhaul next year. Now the families should be spared the confusion the rest of the county experienced.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Monday that the district will spend the next year making sure buses are running smoothly in the communities where routes already were revamped.
"We recognize that there were issues with the implementation of the changes," she said. "I don't want to add any additional areas to the stress for next year."
She pledged to have the school bus system, which transports 90,000 students daily, working as efficiently as possible before going into the remaining parts of the county to finish up the route changes.
Scores of families never received letters mailed over the summer detailing student bus route information. With schools similarly in the dark, parents flooded the phone lines at a transportation call center unequipped for such volume.
Ultimately, school officials increased staffing at the call center and parents could get through without long waits. But the officials heard outrage from the community. The district plans to improve communication efforts next year.
That's not to say that parents can expect to hear the answers they want. The district fielded many complaints about children who no longer qualify for free rides because they live too far from school. With money tight, that "courtesy busing'' is unlikely to come back soon. Other children will continue to walk farther to bus stops.
John Franklin, Hillsborough's general director of transportation, sees some positives amid the problems. He noted that Hillsborough has eliminated 3,000 bus stops. It is doing a better job of filling buses with students and getting them to school on time.
He said the department learned many lessons from this year's failures, including the need to have better internal systems to track students and revisions to bus routes.
The district has dispatched a team to identify every breakdown in this year's transportation program. A report and recommendations are expected in December.
Some remaining issues won't come as a surprise.
"If tomorrow was the first day of school, what would still be our biggest challenges?" board member Doretha Edgecomb asked.
"The communication piece," Franklin answered without hesitation. "Making sure that everyone is aware of what we're doing and why we're doing it."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Hillsborough school officials are phasing in bus route changes in seven geographic areas in the district. To see which area your school is located in, visit www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/AreaDirectors.
Time line for bus route changes:
2007-08: Pilot in Area 5 (southeast Hillsborough).
2008-09: Rollout in Areas 1, 2 and 4 (South and central Tampa and northwest Hillsborough).
2009-10:Rollout called off for Areas 3, 6 and 7 (New Tampa, the university area, northeast Hillsborough).
2010-11: Tentative final rollout for remaining three areas.