Betty Covington says she and her fellow Memphis school bus drivers are being asked to do too much with too little — and students are suffering.

Shelby County Schools changed its bus routes this year, cutting roughly 100 routes to save money. At the same time, several school closures mean that fewer students live close enough to walk to school. Now, drivers are spending more time behind the wheel, and some students have seen their commutes lengthen.

“So often we are blamed for picking up and dropping off late,” Covington told school board members on Tuesday, while wearing the orange vest that bus drivers are known for. “Most of the time, that’s not our fault. The routes assigned to us cannot reasonably be done in the allotted time.”

Covington told the board that she and other bus drivers have ideas about how to improve the situation. Several joined her at the meeting and said they plan to attend other meetings until the district improves the routes — and pays drivers better, too.

“We earn modest hourly rates and struggle to provide for families,” Covington told the board.

Drivers aren’t the only ones complaining. One teacher told Chalkbeat that after her school’s bus routes were consolidated, students were standing in the bus aisles and arriving to school too late to eat breakfast.

The changes came about because the district had to cut costs — at the same time it closed schools.

The district has closed more than 20 schools since 2012, and more students now need bus rides since they live too far from school to walk. That comes at a cost. For example, 366 more students needed buses after Shelby County Schools pulled them out of Corry Middle School as it transitioned to the state-run Achievement School District in 2014.

Covington said drivers are shouldering much of the burden. But long bus routes are taxing on students, too — especially ones who previously have been able to walk to school, such as Fredricka Braden, a senior at Hamilton High School who attended Carver High School until it closed this year.

“The whole point of me going to Carver was because it was in our neighborhood,” Braden said. “I could walk to practice or stay late to talk to teachers. Now, it’s hard to do sports or have that extra time. There’s a lot of time wasted in transit.”

District officials said later that they are in talks with busing contractor Durham School Services to make sure safety needs of drivers are addressed.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the district is in talks with its busing contractor.