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Hillsborough school board votes to buy new buses

TAMPA — Come early 2015,$11 million in brand-new school buses will roll into the Hillsborough County school district.

After months of heated discussion, the school board voted 5-2 on Tuesday to pay $11 million for 100 new Thomas Built school buses. The purchase is intended to be just the first step in a 15-year plan to update the district's aging fleet.

The plan calls for spending $11 million on buses each year for 15 years.

Hillsborough has the 59th-oldest bus fleet out of Florida's 67 school districts. On average, 24 school buses break down daily. A quarter of the district's 1,400 buses are more than 15 years old, and 20 percent have logged at least 250,000 miles.

Last summer, district staff made two separate recommendations to the board to purchase buses from state-approved companies. The first recommendation was to use Thomas Built Buses; the second was to purchase from Blue Bird.

Board members rejected both recommendations, expressed concerns with the process and said they wanted the help of a group not affiliated with the school district to help them make their decision. They advertised for a consulting company and ultimately hired Maryland-based School Bus Consultants.

Board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes, who voted against Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's recommendation to purchase the Thomas Built buses, said the board should consider Blue Bird, whose dealer is Hillsborough-based Florida Transportation Systems. FTS officials say they can offer comparable buses for less money.

Griffin suggested the board wait until July to make a decision, as a new guide for state-approved school bus vendors will be available at the beginning of the month.

“I'm looking at this as a 20-day time period to see what the changes are going to be to make that apples-to-apples comparison,” she said.

Other board members said the decision-making process had gone on long enough.

“We're back to where we started on this whole thing,” board member Cindy Stuart said. “We hired a consultant to do a job for us. We need to trust what the consultant has brought forward. We have to trust what our employees have said, what drivers have said, what staff has said.”

Earlier in the meeting, attorney Ed Turanchik, who represents FTS, told board members the district would save money by going with Blue Bird and that the process the consultant took in making a decision wasn't transparent, in part because proprietary software was used to evaluate various brands of buses.

“Why wouldn't you buy Blue Bird buses from a company based here, who pays taxes here, whose employees go here?” he said. “It makes no sense to me as legal counsel. It makes no sense to the public.”

The new buses won't come to the district immediately. If a purchase order is submitted to the Florida Department of Education in July, buses will arrive in February 2015, Saunders said.

At Tuesday's meeting, the board also approved the following:

♦ An expansion of the district's work with its transportation consultant, who will research school buses powered by alternative fuels and review the district's improvement plan.

♦ The placement of an exceptional student education resource teacher at each of the eight area transportation offices to provide support to employees who transport students with special needs.

♦ The 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic calendars. The first day of school this fall is Aug. 19 and the last is June 5. In 2015-16, the first day of school is Aug. 25, the last day is June 10 and Spring Break is scheduled for March 14-18, a week later than normal.

♦ A raise for school board attorney Jim Porter, who was hired last October at $8,000 monthly to put in about 30 hours of work per month. He has put in about 50 hours of work for the board per month, so his pay was bumped up to $13,760 monthly.

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