Debbie Rike, director of transportation for Shelby County Schools, talks with bus driver Curby White outside of Shadowlawn Middle School.
• Photo gallery: inside Shelby County Schools' 'Elite Fleet'
• Handout: school bus rules
• Handouts: student management tips/breaking up fights
5:15 a.m.: Early morning monitoring
Before dawn in Shelby County, Tenn., Debbie Rike wakes up and turns on her two-way radio. With the first wave of transportation staff members reporting to work at 5:30 a.m., Rike monitors early radio activity from home to make sure the operation is running smoothly. The morning gets off to a quiet start.
7:15 a.m.: At the office
Outside, the mid-October air is cool and crisp, the ground is wet and the leaves boast their autumn shades of red, orange and yellow. The night before brought torrential rain, lightning and even a tornado warning in the region.
Rike, a longtime Shelby County Schools educator and administrator who began serving as director of transportation about three years ago, arrives at the office. As one of her first orders of business, she’s given a list of school bus drivers who are to undergo a random drug test. Rike calls her lot managers and tells them to have those drivers come in for the test immediately after their morning runs.
Shelby County Schools has four school bus lots. Each lot has its own manager, and three of them also have an assistant manager. Two of the managers are also licensed trainers.
The district’s biggest lot, in the south of the county, houses 100 of the 304 total buses.
Next, Rike goes over the morning schedule. If a bus has a mechanical problem or is otherwise running late, the transportation office informs the schools so they can give updated information to any parents who call.
This morning is “pretty calm,” by Rike’s assessment.
8 a.m.: Radio address
After a long ride from downtown Memphis (where I’m staying for the pupil transportation association conferences), I arrive at Rike’s office, at the district’s Grays Creek facility in Arlington.
Rike, who describes herself as “one of the most positive people you’ll meet,” has waited until I arrived to deliver her morning announcement over the radio. These typically consist of safety messages and words of encouragement. The district is celebrating School Bus Safety Week, so Rike thanks her drivers for their dedicated efforts in safely transporting the district’s students.
Rike introduces me to her office staff members — and there aren’t many for such a large operation. For example, even with a fleet of more than 300 buses, there is only one dispatcher. But, as Rike observes several times during the day, the radio is strikingly calm.
8:45 a.m.: On-site drug-testing
Rike takes the list of bus drivers to be drug-tested and walks out to the testing facility, which is onsite and is used for other Shelby County Schools departments as well as transportation.
The drug tests are quick — usually just 15 to 20 minutes, which is a big improvement over the previous arrangement.
“We used to have to send them out to a clinic, and sometimes they’d be stuck there all day,” Rike says. “The district recognized the need to have our own [testing] facility.”
8:50 a.m.: Phone and e-mail
Back in her office, Rike makes a call regarding a pay issue, clarifying a staff member’s hours. After catching up on e-mail, she discusses one of her department’s challenges.
“We have a driver shortage, but we’re dealing with it,” she says. “Not everyone is waiting in line to be a school bus driver.”
To recruit more candidates, the transportation department has sent out notes through the PTA and has posted signs at the bus lots and school offices.
“I’m getting the applications we need, but it’s a four-week process. Background check, DOT [Department of Transportation] physical. ... We just need time,” Rike says.
9:15 a.m.: Accident-free treat
Rike walks over to the building that houses the drivers’ lounge and the lot manager’s office. As drivers return from their morning runs, they are greeted with treats — chicken biscuits and pastries — for achieving an accident-free September.
Rike makes her way around the lounge, hugging and thanking the drivers. When she wishes someone a “happy Friday eve” (it’s Thursday), another driver momentarily thinks that the weekend is closer.
“At first, I just heard ‘Friday,’” the driver says.
“You still have to come to work tomorrow,” Rike says with a laugh.
In the garage, Rike talks with Mechanic Foreman Ken Mauney about a GPS system issue.
9:30 a.m.: In the garage
Rike heads over to the garage to talk with her mechanic foreman, Ken Mauney, about an issue with the operation’s GPS system.
On the way back to her office, talk turns to driver training. There are about 46,000 students enrolled in Shelby County Schools, and Rike’s department transports half of them — about 23,000. Dealing with student behavior is a key focus in training.
“We have to teach them how to handle the kids while they’re driving,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge for our drivers.”
The district’s drivers aren’t unionized, but Rike says that she wanted to make sure that they “have a voice.” Accordingly, she holds monthly roundtables for each bus lot. Food is provided for the voluntary, off-the-clock meetings, and drivers can share any concerns they have.
“Everybody wants to have a voice and have their concerns heard,” Rike says. “I try to keep an open-door policy. We really are a family, and the drivers feel comfortable to have personal relationships with all of us administrators.”