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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Resignation won’t solve all school transportation woes

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Published:   |   Updated: April 24, 2014 at 10:46 AM

When news broke Wednesday about the resignation of Hillsborough County Schools transportation chief John Franklin, maybe I should have at least pretended to be surprised.

Franklin held an important position, responsible for the transportation of 90,000 children to and from school. When people like that leave, it’s big news. Given all the problems under his watch, though, my first, inelegant response went something like: well, duh!

This was inevitable.

When four transportation employees signed their names on a letter to the school board, citing a long list of problems including a troubling accusation that some were told not to document problems with special-needs students, it was time for an investigation.

When their charges weren’t refuted, it was time for change.

When drivers complained en masse about recurring mechanical problems with the buses, it became a safety issue and leadership had to be held accountable.

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Franklin’s departure is a step toward trying to fix problems in the transportation department, but that’s all. You can argue that a lot of the chaos was beyond his ability to control, but that’s not the same as saying change wasn’t needed.

“Everybody can only take so much,” school board member Candy Olson said. “I wish he had stuck around, but I understand why he didn’t.”

Employees have complained about the poor work culture of the transportation department, resulting in low morale. Drivers aren’t paid much, especially given the measure of blame they take when things go wrong. Just keeping enough drivers around to do the job has been a chronic problem.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has said the problems stem from the decision to keep a patchwork fleet of aging buses together rather than spend millions on new vehicles. That helped save jobs during the recession, but the tactic also led to the morale and mechanical problems we now see.

“For years we haven’t had enough buses or drivers,” Olson said. “You can’t run a transportation system like that.”

A new leader won’t make things automatically better, at least not right away. The county has about 1,400 school buses, many of which need to be in mothballs. Since new buses won’t start dropping from the sky, though, keeping things patched up is, for now, the only option.

“Maybe we can bring mechanics in on the weekend,” Olson said. “Maybe they could overhaul the fleet during the summer. We can’t buy enough buses overnight. so it’s important to take emotion out of this. I understand everybody is frustrated, but screaming doesn’t get it done.”

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Here is what gets it done, though.

Unhappy employees brought this problem to light, so bring them into the mix for solutions. Make sure some of them have a chance to interview candidates for Franklin’s successor. Work with the union to reach commonsense solutions for staffing and scheduling.

There are legitimate pay concerns that must be addressed, too.

And then, like Olson said, “We should be quick without being crazy.” This department needs a positive direction and leadership. These are tough, less-than-glamorous jobs, but without them the whole system breaks down.

The problems in this department have had a thorough airing.

With Franklin’s departure, the time has come for a thorough fixing.

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