District slows bus reforms

Restructured school transportation will debut in August and will then be phased in.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2008

TAMPA - After problems with a pilot project in south Hillsborough this fall, school officials are scaling back plans for overhauling the way they transport about 91,000 students daily.

The schedule originally called for rolling out reforms countywide in August. But John Franklin, the district's general transportation manager, now concedes the timeline was too ambitious.

"You just can't compact that much work into nine months," he said. "That's the short, down and dirty answer."

Instead of rushing into a sweeping overhaul next school year, Franklin expects to phase in changes over the next few years.

The plan, still tentative, would see restructured bus runs debut in August in neighborhoods that span much of South Tampa, northwest Hillsborough, parts of the central city and the northern suburbs.

The rest of the county should experience similar changes in 2009-10.

"You want to take your time and make sure the job is done correctly," Franklin said.

Some new practices will be enacted more quickly, he said. These include how the district transports children whose parents are divorced and have split custody, who is eligible for after-school rides to parks, and when to allow a child to ride a different bus home.

Franklin is preparing an update to share with the School Board in coming weeks. He called the time line a working proposal and noted that his department seeks to move as quickly as possible.

Officials want to heed lessons learned from the first transportation changes piloted in south Hillsborough. The school year began with parents complaining about problems including bus stops moved to busy streets and the dangers that children in rural Wimauma faced on longer walks.

And buses persistently were getting children to schools late. Franklin said transportation planners eventually reshuffled runs to get students to class on time.

He noted that the transportation division, which also is undergoing an internal restructuring, now has better staffing than during the planning for the south county pilot.

"I think we learned our lessons pretty well," said Franklin, who assumed leadership of the department during the summer. "We also think we're getting better at this."

The transportation reforms began with an independent audit, submitted to the School Board in March 2006, that highlighted problems in the long-ailing division. The district subsequently hired outside consultants to lay the groundwork and set the timetable for changes.

A proposal to purchase GPS technology for school buses to aid the reforms is off the table for now. Franklin said it remains a priority, but the cost is prohibitive at this time.

Since wrapping up work on the south county pilot in mid fall, transportation planners have begun working on changes in other areas. Next school year, the district plans to retool bus runs in three of seven geographic areas that district officials have created to oversee school operations in a county as large as Hillsborough.

Those expected to see changes next school year include Area 1, which encompasses much of South Tampa and parts of the central city. Also affected are Area 2 schools in northwest Hillsborough and those in Area 4, spanning north Tampa and its suburbs.

The south county pilot focused on Area 5. The rest would be addressed the following school year. To view the list of schools within each area, visit the district's Web site at www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/AreaDirectors.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.