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Schools

Bells toll as buses roll

A new pilot transportation plan aims to get more buses to school on time.

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published August 3, 2007


Students board buses at Apollo Beach Elementary School after a summer reading camp at the school. A consultant's study pointed out a number of deficiencies with the Hillsborough County district's bus system. About 92,000 students ride buses in the county.
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[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
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[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Mechanic Rodney Gilbert did some preventive maintenance work on a bus earlier this summer. A recent Transportation Improvement Plan, generated by a consultant, determined that outside contractors could perform some bus repairs cheaper than in-house workers.

The first step was admitting they had a problem.

Disorganized and dysfunctional, short on bus drivers and with buses chronically late, the Hillsborough County School District's transportation system needed help.

Consultants in January pinpointed problems and returned a report full of suggestions.

The Transportation Improvement Plan doesn't go as far as calling the situation a crisis, but it states that "the time for action is now."

Hillsborough's school bus system has not kept up with the times or with population growth, the study found.

Buses are repaired in-house when contractors could do some work cheaper. On average, the buses run 41 percent empty. Routes are drawn inefficiently. Low pay and high turnover among bus drivers make buses tardy.

How often are the buses late?

So often that at Deer Park Elementary School in Citrus Park, parent Barb Dawes carpooled with her neighbors last school year.

"The elementary kids at Deer Park would have to wait outside in the heat until the buses returned from doing junior high or high school runs," said Dawes.

Walker Middle School in Odessa rearranged its class schedule last year, in part because too many kids were missing homeroom announcements.

Will things change with the new school year?

It will for children who live in southeast Hillsborough. That's where the school district is launching a pilot program that promises improvements - organized management, on-time buses and consistent drop-off locations.

"Not only is it the largest area," said John Franklin, the school district's new transportation general manager. "But it was also chosen because it's a mixture of different types of conditions - extremely dense, rural and some city area, some country areas."

Formerly the director of transportation for the Southwest Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, Franklin replaced Karen Strickland on June 25. Strickland is now the district's bus system manager.

High-tech solutions

Hillsborough does not keep track of the timeliness of its buses, Franklin said. However, a bus GPS system, costing $1-million to $2-million, could help the district do so. That purchase would require School Board approval. District officials and consultants are reviewing whether to move forward.

New mapping software, assisted by employees with "intimate knowledge of the area's streets," will help with the rerouting to ensure that planned stops are in sensible locations, Franklin said.

The plan, with fewer stops farther apart, is set to go countywide in the 2008-'09 school year.

Parents not convinced

Already, it's drawing complaints.

Among other things, the program cuts bus service to children who live within 2 miles of a school. School officials say the state does not require districts to transport students who live less than 2 miles from their schools, nor reimburse districts that do.

"The department is operating within state guidelines," said Franklin, speaking earlier this summer. "You want to make it safe for the kids. And you want to tip your hats to the taxpayers and show them we're using your money in the most efficient manner."

Still, parents reacted angrily when the school district announced that children living near Wimauma Elementary School would not have bus transportation. The remote community along State Road 674 has few sidewalks and more than a dozen sex offenders.

On Tuesday, district officials announced they would reinstate two Wimauma bus stops and open Wimauma Elementary early in the morning to give working parents a safe place to drop off their kids.

Hillsborough County is the nation's eighth-largest school district, and it is about five times larger than what Franklin has dealt with in the past. There are 192,000 students, and 92,000 of them ride the bus.

The catalyst for the Transportation Improvement Plan was a June 2006 report from the Council of Great City Schools. In it, the consortium of large urban districts blamed high bus driver turnover and low pay for the fact that one of every five school buses in Hillsborough arrives late to its destination.

Not enough drivers

The problem, mirrored nationwide, in part reflects a shortage in bus drivers. Their pay - $9.45 an hour, according to Franklin - is "significantly below industry norms," the most recent consultant report states.

Pending union approval, bus drivers can expect a 6 percent raise this year, said school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. The district was 100 drivers short at the end of the last school year and has no immediate plans for additional recruitment.

The transportation department welcomed 99 other new additions at the end of the 2006-07 school year: Thomas Built Buses with larger, curved-edge windshields, low-sloping hoods and Mercedes-Benz engines.

More than half of the new buses are equipped with digital cameras, simplifying operations. When fights break out or other inappropriate activities happen on the bus, district officials can now e-mail clips to schools.

New buses also have larger push-out windows and emergency doors. Each conventional bus costs $74,000. Buses with lifts for special-needs students cost an extra $4,000.

The buses were doled out proportionately throughout the county to bus drivers who have had their bus more than five years.

About half of the district's fleet, including the new buses, have air conditioning and lap belts.

Hillsborough buses rank high in safety, Strickland said. "For the last year, we had one accident for every 51,000 miles, and most were a result of another driver."

That's 241 accidents a year.

Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or 813 269-5311. Staff writers Elisabeth Dyer and Andrew Meacham contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS:

Bus meetings set

Hillsborough County school officials have scheduled public meetings to explain a pilot program that will bring changes to the bus system in the southeastern part of the county.

Parents are invited to attend the meeting at their local high school. Bus routing and bus stop information will be provided.

All meetings start at 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday: East Bay High School, 7710 Big Bend Road, Gibsonton.

Thursday: Riverview High School, 11311 Boyette Road, Riverview.

Aug. 10: Lennard High School, 2002 E Shell Point Road, Ruskin.

Aug. 13: Spoto High School, 8538 Eagle Palm Drive, Riverview.

Safety tips

Drivers

- When backing out of a driveway or leaving a garage, watch out for children walking or bicycling to school.

- When driving in neighborhoods with school zones, watch out for young people who may be thinking about getting to school, but may not be thinking of getting there safely.

- Slow down. Watch for children walking in the street, especially if there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood.

- Watch for children playing and congregating near bus stops.

- Be alert. Children arriving late for the bus may dart into the street without looking for traffic.

- Learn and obey school bus laws. Learn the "flashing signal light system" that school bus drivers use to alert motorists of pending actions:

Yellow flashing lights indicate that the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. Motorists should slow down and prepare to stop their vehicles.

Red flashing lights and extended stop arms indicate that the bus has stopped and that children are getting on or off. Motorists must stop their cars and wait until the red lights stop flashing, the extended stop sign is withdrawn, and the bus begins moving before they can start driving again.

Children

- Get to the bus stop at least five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive.

- When the bus approaches, stand at least three giant steps (6 feet) away from the curb, and line up away from the street.

- Wait until the bus stops, the door opens and the driver says it's okay before stepping onto the bus.

- If you have to cross the street in front of the bus, walk on the sidewalk or along the side of the road to a point at least five giant steps (10 feet) ahead of the bus before you cross. Be sure that the bus driver can see you and you can see the bus driver.

- When exiting the bus, be careful that clothing with drawstrings and book bags with straps don't get caught in the doors.

- Never walk behind the bus.

- Walk at least three giant steps away from the side of the bus.

- If you drop something near the bus, tell the bus driver. Never try to pick it up because the driver may not be able to see you.

Parents

- Teach children to follow these practices to make school bus transportation safer.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Improvement plan findings

- The department is not properly organized for success. The basic organizational structure has not changed in many years and is no longer appropriate for a district this size. Drivers are under-paid and work excessive hours.

- The department is lacking in basic infrastructure. For example, there is not enough space to park and dispatch buses from a central location. That problem leads to late buses and less driver-to-supervisor communication. The district uses a two-way radio system that is outdated.

- Bus routes and schedules are not properly designed or coordinated; the system of bus routes and schedules requires a complete re-engineering.

- Fleet management needs to be improved as well. Specialty repairs that should be outsourced are performed in-house, and some of the repairs being performed in-house could be done more cheaply by an outside vendor.

Source: Transportation Improvement Plan for the School District of Hillsborough County by Management Partnership Services Inc. of Rockville, Md.

 

[Last modified August 2, 2007, 06:27:29]


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