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Where's the bus? GPS can help out

The school district wants to install the technology in buses to keep parents informed.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published June 6, 2007


TAMPA -- If UPS can track packages around the world, Hillsborough school officials think they should be able to find a school bus stuck in local traffic.

The key: GPS technology.

The expensive system is critical to an overhaul of Hillsborough's ailing school bus operation, School Board members were told Tuesday. The district is reviewing proposals for one now.

The technology could provide real-time reports for parents on their child's location when a school bus fails to show up on time at a campus or bus stop.

Eventually, Hillsborough may track all students -- each time they enter or exit a bus -- with technology that could be embedded in ID cards.

"This is the 'Wow,'" said School Board member Jennifer Faliero, after hearing about all the bells and whistles possible with GPS.

But she warned that even cutting edge technology won't improve the bus system if school officials aren't ready when parents call with questions.

"Unless this command center is set up from the get-go to get someone a real-time answer, this is not going to work," she said, highlighting a current problem. "We haven't had people at the phones to answer the questions."

An audit last year of Hillsborough's transportation division found what many parents already knew: School buses frequently fail to deliver students on time. This fall, the district hired outside consultants to help improve an operation that transports more than 92,000 students every school day.

The consultants at Management Partnership Services estimated that GPS could cost between $1-million and $1.5-million to get started.

Offsetting the expense, district officials say, are the savings Hillsborough could see by becoming more efficient. For example, supervisors would know if drivers stray from routes or waste gas by running in idle.

"You may be able to run fewer buses, because you'll know where your buses are," said Jack Davis, Hillsborough's chief information and technology officer.

Hillsborough isn't looking to buy everything at once.

The district is most interested in live bus monitoring and improving communications between drivers, dispatchers and schools.

Nice, but not necessary, is radio frequency identification, or RFID, which tracks individual students coming on and off buses.

Pinellas schools looked into a similar concept three years ago, but it used technology that would have scanned student thumbprints as they boarded the buses. The plan ultimately flopped because of technology problems.

The RFID systems that Hillsborough is looking into have a longer track record. Board members watched a news clip on the pros and cons when Dallas schools started using the technology.

Hillsborough is planning to pilot the GPS equipment when classes resume in August at select schools in southeast Hillsborough. GPS would be installed on buses throughout the county by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, when the busing reforms will be unveiled across Hillsborough.

Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Fast Facts: New time to make speaking easier
Hillsborough School Board members want to make it easier for people to attend and speak at their meetings. After being criticized for making the public wait to speak at the end of meetings -- which start at 5 p.m. and can run longer than three hours -- change is afoot. Board members want to start meetings at 3 p.m. and schedule a set time for public comment around 5 p.m. They plan to start the new schedule with the Sept. 18 meeting.