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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: The safety of our school buses can't be done on the cheap

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Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2014 at 11:26 AM

Cheap.

For the most part, I don't like the consultants governments bring in to do the jobs they are supposed to do themselves.

The waste of your money is at the top of the list. And for all their expertise, it seems consultants come in with little understanding of local issues and why things are. They spend weeks, maybe months, then tell you something you already know and go away.

But I have to give it to School Bus Consultants, a firm based out of Maryland with a tightly defined mission ... school buses.

Of course, I assume they do more than kick the tires, but at least they know their thing.

Down here at the type and gripe factory we've had legions of consultants through the years. I remember one group that came in, admitted this was their first newspaper (they specialized in insurance companies) and spent the next two months just trying to figure out what it was we did. They finally just went away, I assume leaving a bill behind.

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The immediate issue now is the Hillsborough County school district's transportation department, which has been caught up in a politically charged assault on everything from its buses to its drivers to the children whose lives we entrust them with.

In a report, written by Thomas Platt, the consultants ripped through the system, saying it was being run on the cheap and “stressed to the breaking point.''

He added that either more funding must be provided or “service delivery must be constrained.”

Platt is expected to present his report this morning at a school board workshop downtown, where I assume he will go through a litany of ills from a shortage of qualified drivers, poor mechanical upkeep and the fact that at least a quarter of the bus fleet is more than 15 years old.

The board is likely to react. Board member Cindy Stuart, who advocated bringing in the consultants, is already quoted as saying the report is “spot on.” She is probably right, and that should be an outrageous finding.

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You have to think the board, which knows when it's time to circle the wagons and do something, will obviously do “something.”

But you know, it's so much more than that. In all the recent flak over transportation, you've heard as much about stress and low morale as you have about safe buses.

I happened to be driving down Central Avenue a couple of weeks ago and came by Hillsborough High School. I pulled over for just a few seconds; you almost have to.

The great Gothic school constructed in 1928 is as stunning today as it was back then. It suggests that a community cared enough about education to build something like this.

Compare Hillsborough with some of the schools we have put up in recent years that look more like Walmarts and add to the impression that we do education on the cheap.

The same holds for our school transportation system, only more so.

Now we're not only talking about education but the safety of our children, which must be paramount over anything else.

Don't do it on the cheap. Err on the other side of spending, and fix the problems now.

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