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Municipal districts say the first measure of their success will be their buses

Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Two weeks after the start of school last year Debbie Rike, the director of transportation for Shelby County Schools resigned and David Stephens, then the deputy superintendent, was answering questions from reporters about what went wrong with the school buses. There were reports of late buses, long lines, students left behind and busy phone lines in the crucial first weeks of the merged Shelby County Schools’ existence.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when on June 16, at a Bartlett City Schools board meeting Stephens, now the Bartlett superintendent, faced questions about the status of his new district’s transportation contract that still hadn’t been finalized. “This is such a big one because it gets so much attention,” said board member Shirley Jackson. “It impacts those parents every morning.”

Stephens didn’t hesitate before responding. “I have touched that stove and burned my hand: I do not want to touch it again,” said Stephens.

Three days later the Arlington Community Schools board raised the same concerns. “It’s always a nightmare at the beginning of the year,” said board member Danny Young.

These kinds of nervous exchanges have been happening at board meetings all across the six new municipal school districts in Shelby County in the last month, as they prepare to open their doors for the first time in less than six weeks.

“There’s not a date that goes by that someone from the municipal districts’ operations department doesn’t check with me or have a question,” said Rike, who is now directing transportation for all six municipal districts through a shared-services contract.

The performance of the buses in the first days and weeks of the school year will be one of the most visible and important tests of the new districts, according to public statements by board members and interviews with their superintendents. Most teaching and learning happens away from parents and student test scores aren’t available until the end of the year, so transportation could shape early perceptions of the new districts.

“Transportation and food services are not what make you academically higher but when it doesn’t work people are not happy about that,” Rike said. “And I can’t blame them. If you’re on your way to work you want to make sure your baby is being picked up.”

The superintendents are assuring their boards and families that everything will run just fine, but also tempering their expectations, reminding everyone that the buses never run perfectly at the start of the year.

“We’re going to have some little issues too,” said John Aitken, the superintendent of Collierville Schools. “There’s going to be a bus that doesn’t pick up a child in time. There’s going to be one that didn’t run the route one day. That’s not unique to this year. That happens every year.”

But the municipal districts face some unprecedented challenges that leaves uncertainty as to whether the disruptions this year will be as ordinary as they are hoping, or as extraordinary as last year.

All six districts are outsourcing their day-to-day bus service to Durham School Services for the first time. Durham was used by SCS last year and will also be used by SCS this year. Memphis City Schools used Durham for the four years leading up to the merger.

Most of the municipal schools used legacy Shelby County’s district-run transportation service. Even when they merged with Memphis City Schools last year, most kept using the in-house bus service.

But the hybrid system of combining both in-house and outsourced bus service contributed to some of the bus problems last year, according to several municipal superintendents. It will all be outsourced this year, creating uniformity among all the schools but also the uncertainty that comes with doing anything for the first time.

Another change this year is that a single shared office, managed by Rike, will create all the bus routes and coordinate the transportation needs for all the municipal districts. The six districts will save money by not having to separately hire their own transportation staff, but they will each have to maintain six separate lines of communication with Rike and her staff.

It is possible that the beginning of the year could be less problematic than later in the year because typically fewer students ride buses at the beginning of the year. But this year the number of bus riders could change more than other years because of the uncertainty about how many students will end up attending each municipal school. The working assumption right now is that half of the estimated 33,000 students in the municipal districts will take the bus, according to Rike.

“We actually don’t know who is going to come the first day,” Rike said. “We have commitments from most of our parents. But there may be some that change their minds after school starts. Or they may have made a decision in May, but they may change their minds. So we’re playing a guessing game. You always have that to some degree but more this year. You hope that it’s a pretty educated guess.”

Not every student who the municipal districts think will attend their schools has turned in the intent forms they were asked to turn in back in May. Only once the forms are turned in does the student’s information enter into the software the municipal districts are using to make bus routes.

As a result, her staff is adding extra routes now where they expect students to attend a municipal district in the fall, even if the students aren’t currently showing up in their computer system. Rike says she hasn’t been told how many more forms to expect, but that more are coming in all the time.

Durham will also be working right up to the last minute to make sure it has enough drivers. Although it has already held several job fairs, Durham expects an influx of drivers to sign up at the last minute, according to CEO Emeritus John Elliot. A June 28 post on Germantown School’s Facebook page reads, “Bus Drivers Needed!!” Rike says a representative of Durham assured her on June 27 that there would be enough drivers, even if it meant it had to temporarily bring Durham drivers in from other locations until its hiring is completed here.

One reason the transportation contract has been slow to get finalized is that several municipal districts were flirting with reducing the number of start-times back from three to two. A number of parents complained that having high schools start as early as 7 a.m. is not good for adolescents, who need more rest, and is not convenient for families with several children who attend schools with different start-times.

But reducing the number of start-times would require hiring more buses to take more kids all at once and would cost substantially more money. And some districts, such as Lakeland School System, are already squeezed for transportation resources and would prefer to split their routes three ways instead of two.

Just last week Germanton Municipal Schools finally confirmed that it would stay with three routes this year and then look to differentiate itself from the other districts next year by potentially offering just two start-times. For Germantown, the issue was less about saving money and more about its ability to hire enough drivers in time, according to the school board chairman, Lisa Parker. But the late decisions by Germantown and other districts contributed to the delay in finalizing bus routes.

The transportation contract has also been delayed because it requires the lawyers from each school district and Durham to sign off. Although the prices of the contract have been set — $272 per bus per day for three routes — details of the 35-page contract cover everything from who will be in charge of paying for the gas –it’s cheaper for the districts to do it themselves – to where the buses will be parked. Some of the school districts have had to work out side-deals with their cities to find space to park the buses and some still need to build fueling stations and bathrooms.

At a recent board meeting, Tammy Mason, superintendent of Arlington, said that the $1.8 million estimated cost of transportation is higher than she had initially anticipated, but because of conservative budgeting, it is affordable. The total costs of bus transportation contracts for each district was still not available as of Monday afternoon, according to a representative from Durham, because they have not received final bus routes from the districts yet. The routes will be finished by about mid-July, before registration starts, according to Rike.

Rike hopes that most parents will have filled out intent forms for their students by then because she says her office is ready for some last minute enrollment changes “just as long as we don’t have to do 3,000 of them.”

As for last school year’s transportation troubles, too many changes were made too quickly; it wasn’t that any specific change was responsible for the bussing problems last year, according to Rike. The Memphis City Schools changed their start times, and changed the distance that parents were expected to provide transportation. Because the municipal districts have kept the same start times as last year and there are fewer students this year, she expects there will be more stability.

“I have experienced people and I’m confident we’re going to make it,” Rike said, of her two routers who she first worked with at the legacy Shelby County schools.

Half of Stephens’ $20,000 bonus this year will depend on how smoothly the first few weeks of the year go, which could depend largely on how well the buses do. He believes Bartlett will be more ready than the merged district was last year. “Our deal is that we just don’t want to have history repeat itself,” Stephens said.

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