Hillsborough County Schools one step closer to 100 new buses
Hillsborough County School Board members will vote on a proposal to buy 100 new school buses at their next meeting in June. During a workshop Wednesday, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said most of the more than $10 million cost will come from funding already set aside in this year’s budget for buses.
“That funding is still available and we have identified in our next five year plan which begins in July – we’ve identified the cost there. So, we have the money to purchase 100 buses.”
$7 million will be carried over from the current budget into 2015. How Elia will squeeze the rest into the budget isn’t clear. Some board members are worried the shortfall could lead to tax hikes, a loan or dipping into the district’s reserves. Stacy White said he doesn’t want to see any of those options put on the table.
“So, let’s tighten our belts. Let’s make this transportation improvement plan a priority in this year’s budget.”
Elia won’t recommend using reserves because it could ding the district’s credit rating which she says is the best in the state right now. She’s also not too keen on taking out a loan. As for taxes, that’s not an option either.
“This community has gone through some tough times and I do think we’re on the road back from that financially, but we clearly – I will not be making a recommendation for that to the board.”
The entire board seems poised to move quickly on replacing the district’s aging fleet. During a workshop last week a consultant identified 349 buses that need to be replaced and suggested starting with 100. But even if the board approves whatever plan Elia presents at the June 10th meeting, it could still be quite some time before old buses are pulled from the fleet.
“There’s a long lag time before the buses come to Hillsborough County after the order, but we must get that done as soon as possible.”
Replacing buses was part of a broader look at problems with the district’s transportation system. One complaint from staff members was a lack of employee moral – especially among bus drivers. The report from a consultant recommended increasing salaries and hiring more drivers. Elia said the district is already in negotiations with the union.
“We need to look at, not only the salary, the cost for the bus drivers and the amount of money that they make per hour, but also the structure of that salary schedule.”
And some board members suggested moral isn’t all about salary. April Griffin who has championed changes to the transportation department, said something simple like improving facilities where bus drivers wait when their buses are being serviced would go a long way.
“They sit there all day long and there’s nothing available for them to eat. So, even if we got a food truck out there I think that would be really cool.”
“There are machines aren’t there?”
“They spend $2 for a Milky Way. They need food.”
The down time for drivers during bus maintenance is also a training opportunity. That was another problem identified during 27 different focus groups. School board members suggested having smaller groups instead of lumping everyone together. They also suggested better documentation and input from both drivers and mentors. Superintendent Elia said all of those would be considered.
“Training for everyone, documented that they have had it and that we have it at times where, for instance, when they take their buses in for their DOE inspection, we have training available for that time period because they don’t have their bus then. We can use that time and make sure that we can address all the needs that they have.”
One other suggestion was to put some training modules online so drivers could access to them from a smart phone. But phones were another issue. Drivers have complained that radios don’t always work. The board plans to look into why there are problems, but Cindy Stuart had another recommendation.
“Individual, hand held cell phone distributed to drivers where they can call a field supervisor, 911…”
The district’s transportation improvement plan will also include adding quick repair sites to ease the burden on fleet maintenance. They’ll also look at some efficiencies including possibly eliminating some unnecessary bus stops.