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Schools

Wilcox plans to reorganize bus office

The school superintendent wants to create new jobs to monitor bus routes and safety in light of a fatal accident.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published February 2, 2005


Pinellas County's embattled school bus system would be dramatically reorganized under a plan released Tuesday by district superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

The plan addresses two of the system's most pressing problems: dangerous bus stops and dismissive, bureaucratic treatment of parents who complain.

Wilcox wants to create eight new positions, including a customer service manager and two employees responsible for spotting hazardous conditions on the road.

Other changes include a new call center to process complaints "in a more efficient and professional manner" and a chain of command giving bus drivers better access to supervisors.

The new hires would add about $600,000 to the district's payroll. The district does not yet have a cost estimate for the call center. Wilcox has said the district may have to cut other programs to pay for the changes.

The bus system's tolerance for dangerous stops and its reputation for poor "customer service" played a role in the death last fall of 16-year-old Rebecca McKinney. The Clearwater High School student was struck by a pickup truck as she crossed six lanes of McMullen-Booth Road after getting off a school bus.

The dangerous stop persisted despite a district policy that should have prevented it. McKinney's mother has said she complained repeatedly to district officials but got no action.

McKinney's family has formally notified the district that it plans to file a lawsuit. In addition, the girl's death prompted an investigation by the district, which led to Wilcox's proposal.

The School Board will vote on the plan Feb. 22.

Wilcox has said one key to improving the transportation department is to give its 800-plus bus drivers more say in how the system operates. His plan moves them higher on the department's organizational chart.

A new "customer service coordinator" would establish "rapport with parents, schools, employees" and others. No such position currently exists in a department that drew chronic complaints. Parents said they encountered district employees who treated them rudely, failed to follow up on promised action or told them nothing could be done.

Two other new positions would be a "road safety specialist" and a "route and safety auditor." The specialist's duties would include inspecting bus stops and handling complaints about unsafe bus drivers. The auditor would randomly check bus stops to see if they complied with safety regulations.

In addition to reorganizing the department, Wilcox has recommended that a route supervisor be fired and that eight route coordinators be given five-day, unpaid suspensions.

The district has alleged that the supervisor, Tom Reichert, "did not provide adequate training for new employees, seldom monitored the work of routers, did not provide routers with clear guidelines, did not monitor customer complaints about safety issues from parents or school administrators and failed to insure that his supervisor's directives had been followed."

The route coordinators failed to comply with a memo prohibiting routes that forced students to cross multiple-lane roads or highways, according to the district.

All nine employees are appealing their discipline through state administrative hearings.

[Last modified February 2, 2005, 03:58:12]


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