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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Henderson: Any school transportation fix has to keep Bella in mind

We interrupt this argument at the Hillsborough County School Board to remind everyone of something really important.

As board members and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia tackle significant problems in the transportation department, there is one issue that trumps all others. They should keep the image of Bella Herrera in their minds every step of the way.

Lest we forget, and sometimes it seems the adults in the room do, Bella is the 7-year-old child with special needs who died more than two years ago after developing problems while riding a bus home from school.

Her parents sued the school district after they say her wheelchair was improperly loaded on the bus. A neuromuscular disease made it difficult for Bella to control her head, and when she tilted forward her oxygen was cut off.

Following a policy at the time that has since changed, school employees on the bus called Bella’s mother instead of 911. Bella was turning blue when her mother arrived, frantic. She died later at a hospital.

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That was appalling. If a charge made recently by transportation workers is true — that, among many other things, they have been told not to document issues involving special-needs students — that’s worse than appalling.

“You hear something like that and you want to know (the answer) right now,” Elia said Thursday during a meeting with The Tampa Tribune editorial board. “But in a large organization you have to have a process. I’m not a patient person, but there has to be a process.”

So a consultant is looking into that and other issues in the transportation department. It’s a big job because the place seems to be a mess.

“I will tell you right now we have a problem in transportation, and some of the things are related to the (work) culture,” Elia said.

This is a textbook response to a major problem, and I’m not suggesting Elia and the board can make things such as low morale, bullying within the department, decrepit buses and other major complaints go away with a wave. They need facts.

But any potential issue involving special-needs students is not something you farm out and wait for the results.

Even the allegation of irregularity merits an immediate visit by the superintendent to those making the claim. You find out if there was a specific order and, if so, who gave it. If they say it’s just something that was understood, then you shout from the rooftops that it’s not how we do business here.

You don’t need a consultant for that. Whatever the school policy is, you don’t let procedure get in the way of finding the truth.

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Which brings us to the current state of affairs and a contentious board meeting Tuesday (although, a reasonable person could ask, when isn’t it contentious?).

There was a lot of discussion about how the consultant should gather his information. Some board members felt slighted at Elia’s edict that they not speak with the consultant until after he had interviewed staff about the problems.

There was talk of an aging bus fleet that needs to be replaced. Bus drivers have serious complaints that need to be heard. About 90,000 students are transported each day on Hillsborough’s 1,100 school buses. The department has about 2,000 employees.

Elia said the district received $34.2 million last year to fund the department but spent $65 million. It’s a sprawling bureaucracy.

A helpless little girl got caught up in that bureaucracy two years ago, and the only way to honor her memory is to make sure something like that never happens again.

Don’t wait. If procedures aren’t being followed to protect the most vulnerable of students, fix it today.

The consultant can help with the other stuff later.

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