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Jim Beekman, the general manager of transportation for Hillsborough County Public Schools, presented a plan to the Hillsborough County School Board at a workshop, Sep. 27, on the future of transportation for the 90,000 students who ride a bus to school every day.
Half of the workshop focused on courtesy busing. The state provides funding for to transport students who reside more than two miles from their assigned school. State funding is also provided for pre-kindergarten or special education students who require transportation living inside the two-mile boundary. Students not meeting the state’s hazardous criteria are known as courtesy riders, thus the term courtesy busing.
The district currently has 4,153 elementary and 8,610 middle and high school students living within two miles of a school who currently ride school buses resulting in a loss of $5,185,224.01 per year in FTE dollars from the state. FTE refers to the state’s calculation of funding for a Full Time Equivalent student attending school for at least 25 hours per week for a 180-day school year.
The state does provide funding for elementary through sixth-grade students that meet hazardous conditions as outlined in section Florida Statue 1006.23. Beekman’s briefing to the board pointed out that the state only pays about 45 cents on the dollar of funds needed to transport elementary students meeting the criteria for busing due to state approved hazardous walking conditions.
Although state law allows busing secondary students who would otherwise have a hazardous walk to school, it does not provide funding to transport them, said Laura Hill, the transportation routing and planning manager.
“We will identify all of the current areas that meet state hazardous walking criteria and continue service until correction of hazard,” Beekman said. “Every single area is under review as quickly as possible,” said Hill.
If the hazard that made a student eligible for courtesy busing has been abated, Beekman proposed to phase out the courtesy ridership in two phases.
The goal he presented to the board was to identify secondary courtesy riders who no longer require busing due to hazardous conditions by the end of the 2016-2017 school year and end the service in the 2017-2018 school year.
Parents of elementary students will have longer to plan. Letters of notification would be sent to those students who do not meet the state defined hazardous criteria by the end of the 2016-17 school year and bus service will end beginning in the 2018-19 school year.
Hill explained whether or not a student’s walk to school is hazardous as determined by state criteria. A committee meets to make the determination, but most commonly it is due to traffic count, speed limits, traffic path, and whether or not traffic signals are controllable.
Beekman said a web based request form for parents to request a location to be looked at will be located on the Transportation and District Safety web sites. Transportation will be the primary agency to identify and verify hazardous conditions based on the state criteria. The district safety office will be an appeal source for parents who are initially denied by transportation.
In the interim, in an effort to maximize resources, transportation has set up a double run system at some schools, Hill said. The driver makes their usual run, and then returns to the school to pick up the courtesy riders. The district still has to pay for transporting them, but it does not require the additional bus and driver needed if they were transported at the same time as required riders.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) will also assist parents with transportation. TBARTA is a free service providing online matching for parents and students to promote transportation options such as school carpooling, a walking school bus or a bike train. Parents can find more information at http://www.tampabayrideshare.org/schoolpool.html.
Also on the agenda was the continued purchase of new buses. Last year Hillsborough County purchased 200 buses costing $21,092,350.00 from three separate vendors. Fifty of the new buses run on propane, which are refueled at the county’s propane filling station at its service facility on Lois Ave.
Beekman rolled out his plan to purchase this year’s buses from the same three vendors as last year. By purchasing from all three vendors, Beekman hopes to get the new buses into service more quickly. This will allow transportation to get non-air conditioned buses and older buses that cost more to maintain and operate off the road sooner.
The department is collecting and analyzing data from the models already on the road. The evaluation will consist of maintenance data, mileage and input from drivers as well as students.
Ronnie McCallister, the Fleet Manager said, “We analyze the vehicles here in the fleet department to look at what repairs were needed, fuel economy and cost to operate.” The new buses requiring repair are generally covered by warranty but the district closely monitors the days out of service for each model.
McCallister’s goal for bus driver input is to have 20 - 25 drivers complete questionnaires for each type of vehicle that they drove. Beekman added that any students who rode one of the new buses will fill out a survey as well.
Beekman is requesting 40 new propane buses this year. He hopes the district can capitalize on a grant from Florida Department of Agriculture. The Natural Gas Fuel Fleet Vehicle Rebate provides eligible applicants a rebate for natural gas fleet vehicle purchased or leased for a minimum term of five years, on or after July 1, 2013.
The maximum rebate under this program is up to $25,000 per purchased/leased or converted vehicle, not to exceed 50 percent of eligible costs. The state has earmarked $2.4 million dollars for both the 2016-2017 and 2017–2018 fiscal years. Applicants may receive up to a total of $250,000 per fiscal year on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hillsborough County Board members had the opportunity to ask clarifying questions of Beekman and have the ultimate decision on whether or not the district will proceed with these plans.