APOLLO BEACH – In a room packed with dozens of Hillsborough County school bus drivers, just three or four hands went up when one question was asked: How many of you haven’t had a bus break down in the last two months?
At least 75 district transportation employees gathered at the Covington Park clubhouse for the second in a series of community town hall meetings hosted by school board members to raise issues and get input about the department.
For the past several months, bus drivers and attendants have spoken out about poor morale, a lack of training and faulty equipment, especially on buses that transport the school district’s most medically fragile students.
The town halls are organized by board member April Griffin. She was joined Monday by board members Cindy Stuart, Susan Valdes and Candy Olson.
“The state sends us $35 million to transport all the children in this county,” Olson said. “We put in another $30 million or so. Over the past few years, we’ve been trying to save money so we didn’t lay anybody off. I think we made a big mistake in not making sure were replacing our buses.”
The first meeting drew more than 80 drivers and was held March 31 in Valrico.
The town halls come as a consultant reviews district transportation and helps the board come up with a plan for replacing its aging bus fleet. Separately, the school district is investigating concerns raised by some transportation employees, including the treatment of a student with special needs.
Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia will present a plan to the school board next month that will be based on results of the consultant’s review, district investigation and employee focus groups.
On Monday, many drivers continued to say they don’t feel respected by their superiors. Some said they drive overcrowded, moldy buses and others worry equipment on buses that transport students in wheelchairs isn’t safe. Some offered solutions to improve what many described as a broken system.
“I really think if we can let the kids have the same drivers year after year, it would cut down on the discipline issues,” said Debra Acevedo, who has driven a county school bus for three years. “They get to know you, you get to know them.”
While the drivers cited a lot of problems, they praised several of the leaders in their department, including John Saffold, who has trained district bus drivers for more than 30 years.
“John Saffold always made you feel at ease,” driver Lisa Nelson said. “He’s family.”
The next town hall will be 6 to 8 p.m. April 28 at the Beulah Baptist Church, 1006 W. Cypress Street in Tampa.