TAMPA – More training, more money and closer inspection of communication radios are improvements for Hillsborough school bus drivers outlined in a plan developed after more than 30 meetings with employees.
During a school board workshop Wednesday, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and her staff laid out the tentative district transportation improvement plan.
At the top of the priority list is a plan for updating the district’s aging bus fleet, which will come to the school board for a vote at its June 10 meeting.
A consultant has told the school board it needs to buy about 100 buses as soon as possible. Each bus costs up to $110,000, for a total cost of abut $11 million.
Board members are adamant, and Elia agrees, that the money come from sources other than a tax increase, loans or the district’s contingency fund.
“Let’s tighten our belts,” board member Stacy White said. “Let’s make this transportation improvement plan a priority in next year’s budget and let’s move forward with replacing our aging fleet.”
Other improvements include shifting the responsibility of training transportation employees to the district’s professional development office, which hasn’t been done in the past. An orientation for new drivers, attendants and mechanics will be a part of training.
“It seems the natural thing,” Elia said.
Additionally, more exceptional student education staff will be brought in to the transportation offices to serve as points of contact for bus drivers. The number of students with special needs who ride district school buses has skyrocketed from 3,565 to 11,380 since 2006.
A new bus wash bay, which employees say is needed, is on track to open in August. It will cost the district $250,000.
Many employees have reported problems with their radios so a radio check will be included in routine bus inspections by the Florida Department of Education.
Chris Farkas, the district’s facilities chief, said out of 3,500 inspections conducted in recent months, radio problems were reported in 25 cases. Out of 210 radio checks conducted in the last two weeks, 199 were operating as they should, he said. Those checks were done in three of eight areas.
“I think anybody would agree less than 100 percent is not optimal,” Farkas said.
To help fill about 90 bus driver vacancies and address a shortage of mechanics, the district will work with the local staff union to evaluate the salaries of transportation employees. Incentives will be explored, and advisory councils of transportation employees and school leaders will be formed.
“Until we have enough mechanics and drivers, it doesn’t matter how many buses we have,” board member Candy Olson said. “I think we have got to be very inventive when it comes to hiring enough people. Clearly what we’ve been doing is not filling slots.”
District officials want to hire a new transportation general manager as soon as possible. Meantime, they are considering bringing someone in temporarily.
Farkas has been overseeing the department since general manager John Franklin resigned last month.
Overall, board members were happy with the progress being made.
“I am pleased to hear we are going to have training under professional development,” member Doretha Edgecomb said, adding that an important component will be having new employees give feedback as to whether their training was helpful after being on the job for a few months.
Member Susan Valdes said the district needs to make sure to extend the training to all drivers, including those who transport children with special needs and substitutes.
As improvements are being made, White said including employees in the transportation conversation is a must.
“We need to seek constant feedback from those that matter most, those in the trenches.”