TAMPA — Yet another consultant study confirms the Hillsborough County school district's bus service remains in dire need of improvement.
The Council of the Great City Schools — enlisted after a chaotic start to the school year that culminated with 27 children driven into a Westchase-area pond — delivered a mixed report on what is the largest transit system in the Tampa Bay area.
Consultants found the school transportation department, while taking positive steps since Jim Beekman took over in 2014, has organizational problems and a chronic shortage of drivers.
This is true even after previous studies in 2006, 2007 and 2014 found some similar problems. The writers noted that "the district has done little to implement many key recommendations contained in prior studies."
As in other districts, finding and keeping drivers is a perennial challenge.
Starting at $12.71 an hour, drivers have to wait 28 years before they reach the top of the scale. Payroll records show the most a bus driver earns yearly is $29,303 after decades on the job.
According to the consultant's findings, which are based on a four-day visit in December, the system is short 219 drivers for 988 buses.
That's a vacancy rate of 18 percent, although district officials contend that is no longer the case. In March, Beekman estimated there were 50 vacancies. District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Wednesday that, to account for absences as well, the district would like to hire 75.
"Many of the issues in the report are already being addressed, Arja said.
Indeed, the report commends Beekman for taking steps to recruit and reward drivers and improve morale. But it also flagged a shortage in mechanics that results in long waits when buses need to be repaired.
And, although the district has worked to help drivers feel included in their schools and learn the behavior management techniques that teachers use, the report suggests those efforts are not entirely successful.
"The team was told that there is a lack of school-based support for drivers experiencing student discipline incidents on buses, which is contributing to low driver morale and high driver attrition," the report said.
The report described a workforce that does not have much confidence in middle managers. Employees have a "wait-and-see" attitude about announced changes. And when things go wrong, they bypass their bosses and take their complaints to high-level executives or elected School Board members.
"I think that's a small number," Arja said. "Most drivers do feel supported. Overall, morale has improved."
On that point, also, the report disagrees. "It was reported to the team that the [transportation department] was a 'dumping ground' for poor performing district employees," it said.
Morale was so dismal in 2014 that board chairwoman April Griffin organized town hall meetings that drew more than 100 disgruntled employees. Their statements were incorporated into an improvement plan for the department.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Experts say most large school districts struggle to find reliable employees to work split shifts and keep their composure while they transport unruly children through heavy traffic.
In Hillsborough, the challenges are compounded by an extensive network of magnet programs that draw students from the far corners of one of the largest districts in the nation.
During and after the recession, the district also held off replacing its aging buses, leading to an especially harsh consultant's report in 2014.
In response, the district committed to purchasing 100 new buses a year. But the report points out there is no guarantee those purchases will continue long-term.
The consultants recommended the district take these and other steps:
• Develop a business plan that tackles everything from route planning to training and professional development.
• Phase out service for children who live close to schools, where transportation is not funded, unless it is justified by hazardous conditions.
• Revamp the phone systems and test the routing software before the start of school to avoid another round of disruptions when school resumes on Aug. 10.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.