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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Editorial: Privatizing school bus operations worth a look

Everything should be on the table when considering how to fix the Hillsborough County school district’s troubled transportation department.

And that includes a look at whether turning the operation over to a private company could bring efficiencies and order to the department.

Privatization may not be the answer, but the call by School Board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell to at least consider the possibility should be taken seriously by other board members.

Instead, Kurdell’s idea has been treated by some board members as a distraction that could impede the district’s efforts to fix the department.

But it’s the district’s management of the department that appears to have been lacking. A considerable number of drivers are unhappy. The department’s leader has resigned. The bus fleet needs refurbishing, and employees say nobody listens when they complain.

Isn’t it possible that a private company might be better than the district at running a $66 million transportation operation?

As Tribune reporter Erin Kourkounis reports, about a third of the nation’s school districts outsource transportation services. In Florida, two districts outsource the service — and with good results.

Duval County, with 125,000 students, has contracts with some of the largest school transportation companies in the nation and a modern bus fleet its district might not otherwise have, according to the school system’s operations chief.

In much smaller Santa Rosa County, with 25,000 students, the school district has a contract with a single company that allows its administrators to focus on education rather than transportation.

The districts say the buses are safe. The private companies must comply with Florida Department of Transportation and Department of Education requirements for buses and employees.

Of course, there are potential drawbacks.

Generally speaking, the pay the private companies offer for drivers is less than what the districts pay, and that can affect turnover and morale. And the companies may be less responsive to complaints from parents.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which represents union educators, says private companies will look to cut costs and worker benefits, and that can hurt a local economy.

Those are all valid concerns. But considering the anger and frustration emanating from the transportation department these days, and the sheer size of the operation, school board members should be looking to separate fact from fiction when it comes to privatization, instead of being dismissive of the idea.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says she has discussed the idea with a consultant who is assisting with the district’s transportation fixes and that the consultant thinks privatization would be costly. Based on her preliminary understanding, she’s not recommending it.

Elia said the consultant intends to share his thoughts with board members soon.

Board members should keep an open mind and press for more specific information about costs and how the process works in other districts.

“I just think every option should be considered,” Kurdell says. All she wants at this juncture is enough information to compare the various ways the department might be fixed.

That’s a responsible approach as the district, which has about 200,000 students, tackles this important problem.

Students can’t be expected to ace a test if they don’t study all of the material, and neither can board members entrusted with making decisions that are in the best interests of the district and taxpayers.

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