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Crowded IB school bus stirs up Westchase publisher

Published May 13, 2014

TAMPA — Westchase parent Christopher Barrett thought he had solved the problem of crowded school buses to Robinson High School.

At the start of the school year, frequent bus breakdowns were forcing students to double up for the 40-minute trek from Westchase to South Tampa for the International Baccalaureate program. They were sitting on backpacks in the aisle. And without air conditioning.

Barrett spelled it out in a letter Monday morning to superintendent MaryEllen Elia and other officials in the district. He wrote that John Franklin, the district's former transportation chief, took care of the problem when he first complained.

But after Franklin left in April, problems returned, according to his letter. Four times in 11 school days, he said, students experienced excessive crowding.

"Ms. Elia left a phone message stating that the district's busing system, despite recent publicity, was safe," Barrett wrote. "I can assure you, based on Westchase parents' experiences, it is not."

By the end of business Monday, Barrett got a promise that the problem would be resolved.

The Robinson situation is just one example of what some officials call inconvenience and others call unsafe conditions as the district deals with old buses, shabby maintenance shops and a shortage of drivers.

A School Board workshop is planned Wednesday to try to remedy bus system problems, a process that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

In the case of Westchase, the letter-writing parent was the longtime publisher and editor of World of Westchase, a magazine that goes out to thousands of homeowners in the tony Tampa suburb.

Barrett, who got involved at the urging of other parents, blamed board members as well as the administration. He wrote that his representative on the board — Susan Valdes — "appeared more interested in charging the current administration with conspiracies that undermined the board's ability to get reliable bus bids" when he called her.

He blamed "the board's current dysfunction — and its constant appointment of task forces rather than quickly addressing the district's most basic issues."

Valdes, in response, said she has suggested solutions, including a salary survey for noninstructional workers such as drivers, but her ideas were voted down by the board majority.

At one point Monday, Barrett shared photos a student took on the afternoon bus, showing teens sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and crouching and standing in the aisles.

His own daughter was not on that bus, he said. She got a ride home, as did at least four other students. "My wife will carpool the lot of them tomorrow and she hopes to continue until the safety situation is addressed," he said.

But that was before he got a call in the afternoon from Chris Farkas, the district's new facilities chief. Farkas is overseeing transportation until the district can find a replacement for Franklin.

"He's committed that, beginning tomorrow morning, the Westchase hub will once again have its two complete buses with no double runs," Barrett said.

"He added the caveat that if one calls in sick they may have to double run that day, but he said, barring illness, Westchase will return to the much safer situation we've had over the past few months."

Barrett was thrilled. He thanked school officials in a followup letter. He told Farkas he wishes him luck in the months ahead.

Laughingly, he said, "We will pray for you."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or