Student transportation proved a sore spot for Tampa Bay area schools over the past 12 months, with buses frequently late and not enough drivers to improve the odds.
Officials don’t want a repeat for the new academic year, which begins Aug. 10. So they’ve been looking for ways to streamline their systems in an effort to regularly get students to class on time.
Efforts have included a reduction in bus stops in Pinellas County, consolidation of routes in Pinellas and Pasco counties, and increases in driver pay in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough. Other initiatives, such as better communication with parents and new bus tracking systems, are in the works.
“We’re hoping to have a better start to the school year,” said T. Mark Hagewood, transportation director for Pinellas County Schools. “It won’t be automatically perfect. But it’s going to be improved from how we ended the school year in May,” when about 100 routes went without drivers daily.
As districts employ new efficiencies, they acknowledge that not everyone will be happy.
In Pinellas, for instance, the district cut the number of bus stops for students attending schools outside their neighborhood zones from nearly 400 to about 70. It also reduced bus routes after conducting a spring ridership campaign that revealed thousands of students eligible for bus rides did not intend to use them.
Complaints started flying shortly after the district sent home bus stop assignments on July 19. Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Woodford said by sending the information out two weeks earlier than usual, the district had more time to respond to questions and make any possible adjustments.
The district opened its transportation call center early and hired several temporary workers to staff it.
The idea of sending their children to stops farther from home for longer daily bus rides did not sit well with some parents.
Matt Dworkin, who has children in elementary and middle grades, said their bus stop was relocated from a recreation center where his kids could participate in after-school programs until they could get a ride home. Now it’s outside an apartment construction site, he said, and farther than 2 miles from their home, making walking more difficult.
His first grader’s bus route is scheduled to get home after 6 p.m., while his middle schooler is supposed to be on a bus over an hour both to and from school. Last year, the older child was tardy for first period more than 40 times because of busing woes.
In some ways, Dworkin said, the district’s solutions make school choice inaccessible for families who can’t drive their children. “This is just not OK,” he said.
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District officials said they’re trying to make the best of a situation that’s bad across the nation.
In Pinellas, an increase in driver pay to $20 per hour has attracted dozens more applicants, Associate Superintendent Clint Herbic said.
Before the raise, the district had fewer than 10 applicants over several months. Afterward, it received more than 80. If they follow through, Herbic said, it’s possible the district will have a net gain of drivers for the first time in years. With the route reductions and changes, that could mean on-time buses.
He pointed to summer school as a successful trial run. The district had a driver for each of its 145 routes, and “we didn’t get a call about one single late bus all summer long,” Herbic said, adding that the district continues to hire more drivers.
Pasco schools Assistant Superintendent Betsy Kuhn said she wished her district, just north of Pinellas, could have such success in finding drivers.
“The reason we’ve survived the past few years is because of route efficiency,” Kuhn said.
Two years ago, the district ran more than 420 bus routes to and from the schools. As of mid-July, it was down to about 270. With fewer buses on the road, the district needs fewer drivers, yet it still struggles to fill vacancies, paying less than its neighbors even after raises.
“Our (driver) classes are still pretty small,” Kuhn said, expressing hope that the numbers will grow.
The district has stopped running multiple buses into the same neighborhood, assigning students from different schools onto the same buses if necessary. The days of having 35 children on a vehicle built for 65 riders are long gone.
Efficiency trumps convenience whenever possible, Kuhn said.
This year, Pasco is rolling out a new “Where’s the Bus” system to track buses in real time. It should help the district look at how many students actually ride buses compared to the number assigned, and reformat routes faster than in the past, Kuhn explained, suggesting that would help get kids to classes on time.
The Hillsborough school district also is having trouble finding drivers. It has approximately 200 vacancies, which it has tried to fill with hiring fairs throughout the year.
The latest one took place on Tuesday.
Driver shortages have been a problem for so long that in 2022, despite budgetary pressures that depressed teacher pay, the district raised its starting wages for drivers from $14.57 to $16.04 — still well below Pinellas rates.
With conventional schools and a substantial offering of magnet schools, the Hillsborough district transports as many as 90,000 students. A districtwide round of boundary changes that the school board approved in June was intended, in part, to decrease the need for bus travel. But district leaders agreed to postpone most of the changes until August of 2024.
Hillsborough parents, meanwhile, are under no illusions. The district is reminding them that during the early weeks of the school year, buses can arrive up to an hour late — and magnet buses up to two hours late — as staff and students learn their routines.
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.
Want to drive a school bus?
The Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas school districts continue to need bus drivers. “It’s not your grandfather’s school bus,” Pinellas Associate Superintendent Clint Herbic said, noting the buses have air conditioning and automatic suspension. “If you can drive a car,” he said, “you can drive a bus.” To apply, visit these websites:
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