Old buses take Hillsborough kids back to school

Thonotosassa, Florida -- As students in Hillsborough County end their summer breaks, bus workers are finishing their busiest summer ever, spent trying to fix a broken bus system.

Of the dozen school locations Superintendent MaryEllen Elia planned to visit Tuesday, her most significant stop may be the county's main school bus compound.

As the sun came up, Elia broadcast a 30-second pep talk on the radio to the hundreds of bus drivers already on the road.

"We're looking forward to a great school year, and it all starts today, and it all starts with you," she told them.

More: Send us your Back to School photos!

The county's school bus workers have been going nonstop, trying to turn around a district transportation program that's costing taxpayers too much money for maintenance and risks leaving kids stranded in broken-down buses.

A consultant slammed the Hillsborough district's bus department at the end of this past school year for low morale and expensive repairs. The director quit.

READ: The consultant's bus report (PDF)

And kids are still riding to and from school Tuesday on some of the hundreds of buses the consultant says are too old.

A third of the Hillsborough Public Schools' fleet of buses -- 550 of them -- are set to reach their replacement age by the end of the 2015-2016 school year. The consultant says the older buses are safe. But they cost more to fix, and risk more breakdowns.

I asked Superintendent Elia tough questions about this.

She told me she's had 27 meetings with employees across the county, added new training, and sent buses for work outside the county's garage to get more spare buses ready.

"And we've been working with our staff. I have a superintendent's advisory group and they're helping to move us forward."

See Also: School bus problem? Call these numbers

The district is set to buy 200 new buses this year, and a hundred more each year for the next decade and a half.

Elia said during the recession, the district intentionally diverted its money toward keeping people employed -- and away from buying new buses.

The consequences of that decision have been plenty of overtime hours put in by drained bus workers and a need to buy new buses by the hundreds.

PHOTOS: Your Back-to-School pics!


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