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Hillsborough's school bus system improving, but too slowly for critics

Published Dec. 20, 2014

TAMPA — The questions came fast and furious. What if a school bus driver let a wheelchair fall backward, but no child was injured? Should the driver be fired on the spot?

Drivers, who gathered in a high school auditorium this week, complained about gaps in their training. Their new boss, Hillsborough County school transportation manager Jim Beekman, assured them they would get due process if something went wrong.

Then superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who had been listening from the audience, rose to her feet.

"Nothing is more important than the safety of our children," she said. "Many of you are parents or grandparents. Safety of our students is the utmost."

And the critics backed down.

Nearly a year after a memo by four whistle-blowers brought problems in the transportation department into the open, the public conversation continues about how to get nearly 100,000 children to school and back safely in one of the largest school districts in the nation.

The district says it has made progress in eight areas of concern that include an aging bus fleet, shabby repair facilities and low morale among some of the employees.

Drivers just got a 10 percent pay raise, Elia reminded the group, who met at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover.

"That was a well-deserved raise, Mrs. Elia," driver Dana Campbell reminded her right back.

Student behavior referrals are down 11 percent compared with last year, although some drivers still struggle with kids who won't sit still. "Some of these kids are Freddy Krueger and Jason on your bus," said driver Regina Watson. "These kids are terrible."

Upgrades are under way in the garages and at the department's headquarters on Harney Road in Thonotasassa. The radio dispatch system is being moved to the district's security office on 40th Street so there will be around-the-clock coverage in case a bus breaks down after hours.

But a shortage of drivers, a chronic problem in school transportation systems, makes everything more difficult, Beekman said. When jobs go unfilled, or when workers don't show up, other drivers need to do extra runs and work with equipment that is unfamiliar to them.

The number of medically needy students on the buses has risen dramatically in recent years, making training a priority. The district this year created resource teacher positions in the area offices to assist those drivers transporting disabled students.

A bus driver recruitment fair is planned Jan. 20 at Riverview High School, part of a strategy that worked well for Beekman in his last job as transportation manager for the Orange County school district.

The district also has sweetened the pot for employees who successfully recruit drivers. If a new driver remains on the job five years, the district employee who referred the driver can earn $1,500.

Despite these changes, not all employees are satisfied. A town hall meeting Thursday, organized by School Board member April Griffin, attracted three of the four whistle-blowers; the fourth recently retired.

One, driver trainer John Saffold, said Beekman has made a good impression since he joined the district in October. "He is listening to people so far," Saffold said.

But meaningful change will take time, he said. The other two, Corie Holmes and Juanita Juarez, said problems still exist with equipment and management. Although they had no complaints about Beekman, they said they don't trust the managers who are informing him.

"The people that caused the mess are still making the decisions," Holmes said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.