Tackling Hillsborough Schools' bus problem

Tampa, Florida -- After a consultant ripped the Hillsborough School District for carrying kids in aging buses, the final fix may begin Tuesday.

We told you about a consultant's report in May that found around 550 Hillsborough buses set to pass their replacement age by the end of this coming year.

To try to make that right, there's some serious spending on the agenda for the Hillsborough County School Board.

When the recession hit, district leaders decided new buses just couldn't fit in their smaller budget.

"We were one of the only districts in the area, in the state, and across the country that did not do any layoffs, did not have any furloughs; we did not touch the classroom," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. "But that meant other things had to be put on the back burner. And, in this case, part of that was transportation."

So on Tuesday, the school board will pay the price for that.

After buying just 36 new buses since 2006 -- out of a fleet of more than a thousand -- the school board is now considering a big buy.

They've already ordered 100 new buses this summer, and now they're planning to buy 100 new buses every year for the next 15 years.

Arja says the district has to space out the purchases over that much time for two reasons. First, the $11 million per year cost for 100 buses will be a strain on the budget as it is.

And second, by spreading out the buses' start dates over a decade and a half, "You wouldn't have to replace all buses in 12 to 15 years again, and put us in the same position that we're in now," Arja said.

It'll take a few years, but as the aging fleet is fully replaced, maintenance costs -- and delays in kids getting to school -- should definitely go down.

"The consultant had said that, yes, our buses are old -- but he had said all along that the buses were safe, that the fleet was safe," Arja said. "But that the buses need to be replaced and we have to put a plan in place as quickly as possible."

The school board is set to consider this as part of its five-year spending plan Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Another big part of Hillsborough's five-year plan that will get discussion Tuesday is handling a surge of kids in one part of the county.

The Ruskin/Apollo Beach/South Shore area in the southern section of the county is adding hundreds of new students a year.

So the district is looking to add in that area a new middle school, a K-8 school, and expand Lennard High School -- all in four years or less.


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