HCPS Operations Keeps Missing the Bus

bus stop printed on asphalt road

Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) issues are stacking up: lead in the drinking water, non-functioning air conditioners, mold in schools, radon testing, late buses, and a first grader dropped 20 miles from home.  Is this because the state is underfunding school maintenance, as has been suggested by Superintendent Eakins, or is it mismanagement?

Accountability needs to sit with those responsible – local school district leaders (i.e. the School Board and leaders in Hillsborough County School District).  Would you continue to employ anyone whose actions lacked expertise, professionalism, or transparency?  How well would your family physician perform duties if you only required the physician to have a degree in biology? Likewise, you don’t hire a physician to be your auto mechanic.

Was the lack of transparency that occurred when the district started testing for lead without notifying parents due to a lack of state funding?  Parents should have been notified as soon as lead testing began, and as soon as any lead was found, so parents could consult their pediatricians in a timely manner with concerns.  Telling parents what is going on does not require money.  HCPS Operations seems to be in damage control mode.

In 2014 Chris Farkas was selected as the Chief of Facilities, heading the transportation, maintenance, custodian, and facilities departments.  The position was renamed Chief Operating Officer in 2015.  According to the Tampa Tribune, this position paid $137,248.  The operations department should be responsible for fixing transportation, a/c problems, mold remediation, and lead and radon testing.

An expensive audit in 2016 by Gibson Consulting Group (Gibson) identified a lack of credentials required for certain jobs in the school district.  The report noted that “operational leadership positions” needed upgraded job descriptions and that operational job descriptions were “generic” and lacked “technical requirements”.

In my opinion operational leadership positions (especially when logistics related) call for a degree in Operations Research, Industrial Engineering, or Industrial Management; an MBA would be an additional plus for this type of position.

What qualifications did the Chief of Facilities have in 2014? In 2014 the Tampa Tribune reported Chris Farkas has a “…secondary education bachelor’s degree in comprehensive social sciences. He has a master’s degree in educational leadership from National Louis University.”  Educational Leadership is also HCPS’s preferred degree for the General Manager, Transportation position—which is not a technical degree.  That job description specifies its preferred certification: “Certifications in appropriate technical field preferred” – which is not the name of any certification.  Can anyone in the HCPS Operations Department discuss queuing theory, game theory, or develop linear programming models?

In 2017 the district said they needed to change school start and release times to increase the time between bells (elapsed time), because that elapsed time was the root cause for late buses.  Where is the data-driven evidence to support that root cause?  Several other known and documented causes for late buses were identified in Gibson’s audit.  The district decided to go with a one-size-fits-all (standard) recommendation for all urban school districts (that does not consider local traffic patterns or area needs).  What happened to the clearly identified problems causing late buses—were they rectified?

While HCPS was deciding on new bell times in 2017, MIT’s Operations Research Center won a challenge to provide solutions to the busing and bell time problems at Boston Public Schools.  If this is a challenge for operations research (OR) experts, how should anyone expect leader(s) who apparently do not have a degree related to this field to solve or even fully understand the problem and effectively communicate the problem with the public?  If this is the scope of the problem in our district, then do we have OR expertise on staff?

A successful industry example on a larger scale is ORION, built by UPS.  According to UPS, it began a prototype in 2008 and didn’t launch until 2013, completing in 2016.  While student riders are not “packages”, the concept is similar; it is a classic optimization in operations research problem.  A case study by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) explains who UPS had on their original team:

The development took place within the Operations Research and Advanced Analytics groups, starting with a small, diverse team: a PhD in operations research, an industrial engineer, a UPS business manager, and several software engineers. – BSR, March 2016

It is not coincidental that the composition of that UPS team reflects my recommendations for certain operational leadership positions.

Has the District Superintendent or Deputy Superintendent, Operations considered developing a partnership with the local INFORMS Chapter at USF or USF’s IMSE department?

If HCPS’s job description only requires an educational leadership degree, how should anyone expect the problem to be solved given the complexity?

The problem is not limited to late buses, fewer students being served can contribute to traffic problems and unsafe conditions, and the list of facilities concerns now includes a/c reliability, mold, lead, and radon.

In mid-2018 Chris Farkas was promoted to Deputy Superintendent, Operations, arguably the most important position in the school district.  The HCPS Operations Department now includes Transportation, Maintenance, Human Resources, Information Technology, Business Services, Growth Management and Planning, Student Nutrition, and Security and Emergency Management.

After rearranging school start times to fix late buses, are buses still late?  Check out one of Hillsborough School District’s tweets setting expectations for buses to be late up to 2.5 hours for two weeks; how is that acceptable?  Was this a poor solution that might not even work, placed on the backs of students and the families the district serves?

Are parents aware of the HCPS courtesy busing survey? How many buses are currently over-crowded? How many students have been picked-up or dropped-off late so far this year?  How much instructional time have students missed?  How many parents have been late to work because a bus was late picking-up?  Why aren’t bus statistics reported on the district website (transparency)?

The decisions that impact the success of student transportation and facilities conditions are impacted by the financial, business, and operational acumen of those managing district operations.  HCPS is the 8th largest school district in the nation. Its general fund exceeds $1.5 billion and the tentative budget recommended on August 1, 2018 exceeds $3 billion.  The qualifications of our leaders, responsible for managing the district operations for over 200,000 students, should be top-notch.

Remember—you don’t hire a physician to be your auto mechanic.  It is easier to blame money than to fix political, operational, and leadership problems.  It is time for a new approach to running the school district. Parents need to objectively study the issues, and rally together to hold the school district leaders accountable for their actions and decisions.

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3 Responses to HCPS Operations Keeps Missing the Bus

  1. Christopher says:

    Great article!!!


  2. Josephine Amato says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and very concise article to the core of the issues. I run Safe Bus For US an organization in Hillsborough County advocating for students safe paths to school, which is the American School Bus. I agree with your analysis 100%. I have been speaking to leaders in and out of our school district about the lack of proper management and logistics that is required of running a transportation department. Our issues within this department span over 10 years. Unfortunately, HCPS leadership has chosen to make our children pay for inept leadership. At every turn it our children who are made to sacrifice. Thank you for writing about the issue in a detailed manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tammy says:

    Elementary schools don’t release until 7:10 which make us late for high school and I have a double run for high school on time for middle school traffic parents in lines makes all of us late for school


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