Is district fixing problem of too-old buses?

Thonotosassa, Florida -- Kids will be riding back to school in Hillsborough County on Tuesday in hundreds of buses that a consultant says are too old.

This consultant's report showed top-to-bottom problems in the Hillsborough Schools' bus program. Too many old buses, expensive maintenance, and low morale were all listed.

READ: The consultant's bus report (PDF)

We wanted to know what they're doing to make sure those buses are safe and whether the problem's getting fixed. So I headed to the bus garage and asked the superintendent tough questions about these buses and our kids.

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Alberto Davis spends much of his days arms-deep in big bus engines.

He's a bus mechanic, but now he has an extra duty: tell the superintendent what's up before things break down. He's part of a new advisory council of bus workers.

"Great people talk about ideas," Davis explained. "So, if there's a problem, and you are part of the group -- instead of criticizing the problem, help fix the problem."

In April, a consultant ripped the age of Hillsborough County's school bus fleet. A third of the county's buses -- 550 of them -- are set to pass their replacement age in the next two years.

"A lot has been done. We still have more work to do," Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told me.

She said since April, she's had 27 meetings with employees all over the county. They've added new training for workers. And they've sent buses for work outside the county's garage, to get more backup spare buses running in time for this new school year.

"The school board has approved the purchase of a hundred buses. And we will come back to the school board in a relatively short period of time to purchase a hundred more buses," Elia said.

Hillsborough County plans to keep adding at least one hundred new buses every year, for the next decade and a half.

Hillsborough's fleet has 1,400 buses in it. But over the past seven years, they've only bought around 30 new ones. I wanted to ask the superintendent -- why have we fallen so far behind?

She says it was a conscious decision of where to cut the budget.

"We've had a global recession… but we never laid off any employee, we didn't do furloughs," Elia said.

"And now, we're in a position to look at those areas where we did not have funding and moved some additional resources… into those areas."

Are the old buses safe?

Even the critical consultant says "yes." But they're more likely to break down and cost more to keep running.

"It's more difficult with an older bus, because there's always something to fix," Davis said.

In the garage, bus safety inspections last 90 minutes, bumper to bumper.

And Davis insists -- old or not -- no bus leaves his stall unless it is safe.

"You've got people's kids… going to school on that bus. So we've gotta be picky about that," he said.

GALLERY: Back to School Photos


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