Shelby County Schools Bus Fixes Underway

By Bill Dries

The director of transportation for Shelby County Schools resigned on the same day that the first fixes in school bus routes, times and stops took effect.

And leaders of the school system say Debbie Rike was not forced out.

The first days of the unified Shelby County Schools district have been plagued by bus issues. The district has begun rolling out fixes in hopes of handling the problems.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“Debbie’s been a loyal, hardworking employee for SCS for 33 years. We respect her decision,” said deputy schools superintendent David Stephens. “But this was her decision, and obviously it was a personal decision she made.”

The interim transportation director is Hitesh Haria, chief of business operations for the school system. His department includes transportation services, and Haria was involved in planning for a new transportation plan that is a hybrid of the old Shelby County Schools bus fleet and a contract with a private transportation company.

“He’s kind of the boots on the ground out leading that operation,” Stephens said of Haria. “We feel like with his experience in other districts and experience he had in this district working in the operational realm – that his hands-on involvement will ensure that we will continue the improvements we’ve seen over the past week.”

The problems in the nearly two weeks since the first school year of the unified school district began have been transportation issues and parents’ inability to reach anyone to discuss complaints or ask questions.

“What we’ve been doing is reassigning some routes to improve that overall efficiency, looking at overcrowding issues that were happening on some of our buses and addressing those delays,” Stephens said of the route fixes. “We feel like that is going to be a vast improvement to work out some of the issues that are there.”

As for the temporary call center the school district assembled for the opening of the school year, call takers have been added and assigned specifically to transportation services. The calls, according to Stephens, tend to peak at the beginning of the school day and toward the end. And during those peaks, operators haven’t been able to get to all of the calls.

But he said he has seen fewer calls this week than last week.

“There was a ton of calls,” Stephens said. “I was in there Tuesday, and the volume of calls … had dramatically decreased. They were still getting transportation calls.”

Meanwhile, staffing for the hybrid bus system hasn’t been a problem, given what school officials describe as periodic shortages of drivers and a departure of some drivers early in the merger process when it looked as if the school system would make a total conversion to contracting with a private busing company.

“Historically, last year, when there was all the discussion of Shelby County Schools outsourcing transportation in the new merger that there were some issues with drivers who were saying, ‘I need to go find another job,’” Stephens said. “Driver shortages are not a new phenomenon for us. … The problem is that we were probably coming into the year, due to all the talk of totally outsourcing transportation, that there’s kind of in general been a driver shortage. … We’re pretty well-staffed up.”