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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Consultant: school bus system stressed to ‘breaking’

TAMPA – Run on the cheap and “stressed to the breaking point” is how a consultant describes the Hillsborough County school district’s transportation department in a report to be discussed at a school board workshop Wednesday.

A shortage of bus drivers and an aging bus fleet must be addressed, according to the report, which was written by Thomas Platt, of Maryland-based School Bus Consultants, and released Friday.

“Either more funding must be provided or service delivery must be constrained,” Platt wrote. “There is no other alternative.”

It could cost millions to get district transportation to where it needs to be. Updating the bus fleet will require $11 million to $16 million over each of the next 14 years, increasing the department’s $67 million budget by at least 16 percent, the consultant wrote.

“He spelled it out in black and white and brought a sense of urgency to what we need to do – buy more buses, get more bus drivers,” school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. “He made it very clear it’s time to make investments and to add additional resources or we’re going to lose effectiveness.”

With a 2007 improvement plan as a starting point, the consultant wrote that only small improvements have been made since then.

A bus study conducted by the consultant found that 349 buses – or 25 percent of the district’s 1,393-bus fleet – are at least 15 years old or have logged more than 250,000 miles and need to be replaced. Only 31 new buses have been purchased since 2010.

“There is no easy, short-term fix,” Platt wrote, adding that the district could consider leasing buses and debt financing as possible alternatives.

The report notes that the number of special education students who ride district school buses has skyrocketed from 3,565 in 2006 to 11,380 today.

The district, which transports more than 90,000 students on buses each day, spends $2,169 per year to transport each special education student compared to $555 to transport students who do not have special needs.

In 2006, the district was spending more than double what it is today for the transportation of each special education student and $524 for each student who doesn’t have special needs.

“The net effect is to shift transportation demand and cost to an inherently less efficient and more costly transportation service,” the report states.

The report indicates that the economic recession was likely the reason the district hasn’t been able to invest much money in bus replacement in the last eight years and that there has been a two-thirds reduction in the district’s capital funding since 2007.

The consultant wrote that improvements also need to be made in the department’s maintenance division. It has 100 budgeted positions but 16 are currently vacant, which could keep the department from running effectively. A driver shortage, old buses, a lack of qualified mechanics, low pay and morale problems are all issues that transportation employees have raised in recent months. All were addressed in the report.

Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia began meeting with groups of transportation employees on Monday to bring them into the process of solving the problems within the department. The meetings come on the heels of nearly 30 focus groups the district conducted for transportation employees.

“We need buses,” Elia said. “That’s clear in the report. We have to address some other issues. He’s outlined those for us and we’re going to move forward.”

Board member Cindy Stuart, who led the charge to spend nearly $40,000 on hiring the transportation consultant, said the report is “spot on.”

“We obviously haven’t invested at all in this division and it’s time that we do,” Stuart said. “I don’t want to see us make a rash decision and buy 350 buses next week. I think we need to buy a pretty big number this year and for the next (few) years. The board has some difficult decisions ahead of us.”

Platt will present his report to the board during a workshop at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the auditorium at the district administration building, 901 E. Kennedy Blvd.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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