Hillsborough's aging bus fleet is unreliable, departing supervisor says

Published Jan. 22, 2015

TAMPA — Richard "Dewayne" Bethune just quit his job with the Hillsborough County school system, supervising workers who repair hundreds of school buses.

It's frustrating work, said Bethune, 51, who spent six years with the district. The buses are old. The mechanics are not always up to the job. And, to hear him tell it, the district doesn't back him up when he tries to supervise them.

As a result, he told the Tampa Bay Times, money is wasted and the buses are not reliable.

"I won't put my grandchildren on a school bus," Bethune said. Speaking at a recent town hall meeting in Valrico, he told more than 80 drivers, "There's no pride. There's no discipline to start with you. There's no quality control."

His last day on the job was Friday.

The issues that convinced Bethune to shift his focus to blueberry farming are part of a bigger set of problems plaguing the bus system, the largest transit operation in the Tampa Bay area.

In January, four trainers signed a memo outlining safety and morale issues, some involving special-needs students, despite improvements the district made following the 2012 death of Isabella Herrera. The memo spurred a district investigation.

Separately, superintendent MaryEllen Elia called for transportation employees to air their concerns in focus groups. School Board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes organized town hall meetings of their own, including one planned Monday in Apollo Beach.

Problems have been aired in so many venues that, at the last board meeting, Chairwoman Carol Kurdell suggested the district consider privatizing the bus system. "There is an enormous amount of savings to be made," she said.

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Some drivers complain that the buses are in poor condition and Bethune said that's not surprising.

Hillsborough's fleet is the 59th oldest of Florida's 67 school districts, according to state records. The inventory lists hundreds of buses that are 19 and 20 years old, well past the recommended retirement age of 15.

What's more, Bethune said, some mechanics are barely qualified and not conscientious about their work. Some landed in the shop after working unsuccessfully as drivers or custodians, he told the Valrico audience. "It's a dumping ground."

Drivers cheered and nodded in agreement when he asked: "How many buses leave (the repair shop) and don't even make it down (U.S.) 301? They have to turn right back."

One of the four trainers who wrote the memo, John Saffold, told district officials that drivers sometimes are stranded for hours. He described one situation in which the mechanic could not fix a leaky wheel seal.

A tow truck was called but it was the wrong size. "Now (the driver) sits two more hours waiting on a wrecker," Saffold said in a transcribed interview. "Now, this is like 7:30 at night … They tell her they don't have a spare bus for her."

Bethune said a crash happened in February, injuring a student, because of brake failure that a mechanic should have noticed. Asked about the incident, district officials said only that an investigation is under way.

Another mechanic was fired after a tie rod, part of the steering system, fell off a bus, Bethune said. Personnel records confirm a mechanic was fired for improperly attaching a tie rod in 2009.

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More recently, Bethune tried to document a case against mechanic Paul Vilchez, 52. He said Vilchez, a longtime employee who was union president in the late 1990s, is slow on the job and wastes other workers' time with his complaining.

Vilchez said there's nothing wrong with his work, and that Bethune and fleet manager James Kennett violated his rights as they tried to discipline him.

"They fabricated and created false documents to reprimand me and give me a negative evaluation," Vilchez said. He spoke to district officials and was able to have the negative documents purged from his personnel file.

Mechanic James Crump, meanwhile, was investigated in 2013 over allegations that he made remarks about killing his bosses and co-workers. The Sheriff's Office was called, but did not make an arrest.

Crump denied making any threats and blamed the misunderstanding on a co-worker with a grudge. He asked the district to investigate when someone distributed a petition that said: "James Crump has made public death threats against fellow workers in this facility. If you feel uncomfortable in your workplace or in danger for your safety you should sign this petition."

It turned out one of the mechanics brought the petition in, although Bethune signed it.

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the district welcomes any information that can help the repair shop, or any other department, work more effectively.

"If any of our employees are not getting the job done or are cutting corners, we need to know about it, and we will get to the bottom of it and correct it," he said. "In this case, some employees have come forward with allegations. We are investigating and, where necessary, we will take action."

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When the recession hit in 2007, the district reorganized its transportation department to cut costs and avoid laying off teachers. Some mechanics and drivers say the reorganization created its own inefficiencies.

These days, Bethune said, the district is paying sky-high fuel bills because the buses are so old, and contracting out some repairs that could be done in-house with a better staff.

Outside labor costs as much as $89 an hour, triple the top district rate of $28.

"It's all a question of balance," Hegarty said. "We have analyzed the numbers and we're comfortable that the way we're getting the job done is the most cost-effective."

He pointed out that twice in 2013, the district tried to buy new buses. Both times, the School Board rejected the proposals. In August, the board decided to hire a consultant before going any further.

Elia has pledged to address transportation concerns in an action plan that will pull together the consultant's work, the focus groups and the response to the trainers' complaints.

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