At a June 7 meeting at Pride Elementary, (l.-r.) Pride principal Paulette English, Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn and School District director of operations Chris Farkas discussed transportation issues at Pride with about 30 concerned parents. (All Photos by Charmaine George).

District 7 Tampa City Council member Luis Viera takes pride in his ability to organize public town hall-style meetings and bring folks together, apparently even when the city isn’t the primary focus of the meeting.

Case in point: Viera contacted District 3 Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn because a number of residents of K-Bar Ranch had contacted him about transportation issues at Pride Elementary and he felt a public meeting would help at least shed light on some of the concerns of these local residents (including some who live in the Hillsborough County-based developments of Cross Creek and Live Oak Preserve) to work on issues like buses, long pick-up and drop-off queues at Pride and the safety of the students, parents and staff at the school.

Vaughn agreed, and on  June 7, about 30 Pride parents and local residents attended a meeting at the school hosted by Viera, Vaughn, Pride principal Paulette English and the director of operations for the Hillsborough School District Chris Farkas. Also on hand were Rich Reedy, the legislative aide to Hillsborough County District 2 commissioner (and Board chair) Ken Hagan, as well as the School District’s general manager for transportation Laura Hill. 

The residents in attendance were mainly from a group of at least 45 Pride parents who live in the Andover Place apartments, which are located just under two miles from Pride and who had emailed Farkas because they all have to drive their children who attend Pride to school. The reason? As Vaughn explained during her opening comments, a new law passed by the state legislature dictates that students who live closer than two miles to their school are not eligible to be bused.

Vaughn also explained that the issue these parents have been experiencing is common throughout the District at many other schools. Meanwhile, Farkas said that although it is possible for the District to “charter” a bus for a specific group, “there is a huge shortage of bus drivers throughout the District. We’re about 275 drivers short right now, and we only receive about $30 million of the $64 million the District spends on transportation from the state, or about 41 cents of every dollar. The rest has to come from the District’s general fund, which is the same pot of money used to pay teachers, aides and staff.”

Farkas also noted that hiring additional drivers has been a priority for the District, but “when Pinellas County Schools pays their drivers about $4 more per hour than we do, it’s hard to attract more.”

He added, “If enough parents are willing to share the cost of that additional bus, it is possible we could at least look into it.”

Farkas also noted that Hill is responsible for the plan of how to get all bused students to and from school on time, “and we already have to drop kids off at Pride and then the driver has to go right back out and pick up the second group of kids and drop off again.” The buses also have to drop off the first set of kids at home and return to school to then drop off the second group in the afternoon, too.

“That creates another problem,” Farkas said. “If we have to have a third set of kids picked up and dropped off by that same bus, how early in the morning would the first set of kids have to be dropped off at Pride in order for all three busloads get to school on time each day?”

Parents who are driving their kids to school are not allowed to leave them there until 7 a.m., English said. And, Farkas added, “if a bus had to drop off the first ‘load’ of kids at 6:30, we would have to make sure that there was proper supervision for those kids to keep them safe. So, as you can see, it’s a logistical problem for us. It’s not an impossible one to work out, but it is an issue.”

Rec Center To Help?
County Commissioner Ken Hagan’s legislative aide Rich Reedy (far left) discusses transportation issues at Pride Elementary with members of the community at the June 7 meeting.

Reedy mentioned that he believes the new indoor county recreation center now in the planning stages adjacent to Pride would actually help with the number of parents currently queuing in line at the end of each school day once it opens — in 2024 — “because we will have additional parking over what currently is available (on a gravel parking area at Kinnan Park) at that site.” English said that the parking lot for that new rec center also would need to be available for Pride parents in the morning, or the parent queue would be even worse before school starts.

Reedy said he didn’t see why that would be a problem for the county. 

“We already do a lot of co-locating with the School District at other locations,” he said. “Plus, the rec center would not be in use during school hours, so I can’t imagine that would be an issue.”

Others in attendance also wanted the panel to find ways for the county, city and school district to address speeding on KInnan St., including adding more street lights, cameras and even, possibly, a roundabout where Kinnan meets Bassett Creek Dr.

The panel also said that local residents should write to their elected state legislators — State Senator Danny Burgess and State Rep. Fentrice Driskell — to help address the two-mile-radius law and the lack of proper state funding for public schools. Viera said he feels that because of Florida’s private school voucher system, “public education has been abandoned by our state legislature.”    

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