Getting children home safely Murphree’s goal

Published 4:12 pm Monday, October 29, 2018


South Panola school buses travel more than 4,000 miles a day, and thousands more each year on activity trips, with remarkably few accidents or breakdowns. Scootie Murphree, director of student transportation for the district, doesn’t stop to consider that success very long though.

“We can’t relax because we got them all home today, we’ve got to do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day,” Murphree said, speaking to the Exchange Club of Batesville this week. “We have to haul 3,200 children to school safe and then back home safe every day of the week. That’s a grave responsibility for a man who went two years to Northwest

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just because his daddy want- ed him to.”

Murphree said he’s only had three jobs in his life. “I drove a tractor for six years, I worked fifteen years for Gilbert Bridges, Sr., and then for South Panola School District these past 27 years,” he said.

It’s his deep Panola County roots and a strong work ethic learned early that contributes

greatly to Murphree’s management style. “I tell all our people that this is our department, not mine. It takes all of us as a team to get the children to school safely, and then we’ve got teachers and coaches standing there waiting to watch them get off and sometimes it’s cold. I’m very thankful for the team effort that is put in each day to keep these children safe.”

“I’m sixty years old and I’ve rode down the same road home every day of my life, down Highway 35 South, except when I was born and we lived on Hays Street. Daddy worked at the hosiery mill. It was 1958 and everybody in Panola County worked for the hosiery mill,” he said.

He also read water meters for the Independence Water Association for 28 years and still serves on that board. “You read water meters for 28 years, you learn everybody’s name and where they live.” Over the years, no one has learned the people and roads of the county better.

The school district has a fleet of 67 buses and 11 of those run double routes each day inside Batesville limits and eight buses run routes for Pope School students. More than half of the buses are 10 years or older, Murphree said. A staff of five full-time staff man the bus shop at the corner of Hwy. 51 South and Eureka Rd.

Keeping the buses in good running order, including all lights and flashers working properly, is a major part of Murphree’s duties, and strict maintenance schedules are kept for each bus. Adding two security cameras to each bus (some have four) was a major undertaking as was putting GPS hardware on each bus. Applications allow him to track each bus almost in real time.

Time is almost a factor for Murphree and his drivers. Beginning at 6:10 a.m. stu- dents are picked up and driv- en to various buildings on a finely-tuned schedule and drop-off/pick-up windows are about 20 minutes at each school. That means buses have to be lined up in the proper order and waiting on the children, Murphree said. Just one driver being late or missing a cue can cause seri- ous delays.

Even with all the challenging logistics of the transportation department, Murphree finds time to find opportunities to improve the current fleet of buses and the way the district uses them.

“I wanted to get all the seven of our special needs buses air conditioned,” he said.

The district employees 67 drivers with an average of 13 years of experience. The need for qualified and licensed drivers is always a pressing problem, and he is often scrambling to find drivers for buses whose regular driver did come to work.

Field trips, athletic events, and many other activities are an added worry for the bus shop staff, but one they take in stride. “We have four buses leaving Saturday at 2:45 in the afternoon and going to Jonesboro taking the band. They won’t get back until after one o’clock and I won’t rest until I hear from each of those drivers.”

“It’s a great job for retired people or anyone who wants to drive a bus. We start out at $800 a month and we always need drivers,” Murphree said. High driver absenteeism is a problem he has trouble understanding.

“We were raised to go to school, go to college, get a job, get married, and make a life,” he said. “It’s just a different time we are living in now.”

Still, Murphree clearly loves his job and hasn’t begun to seriously consider retirement just yet.

“People ask me when I’m going to retire and I tell them I don’t know, that’s up to the Lord,” he said.

District superintendent Tim Wilder said he hopes to retire before Murphree because of how much he knows about the county roads, and how to best keep the buses running every day on time.

“We employ 670 people and we’ve got a lot of good people, but we don’t have many that are willing to start at five in the morning and get home after midnight on a frequent basis,” Wilder said.

Murphree said he knows peoplesometimesonlyseethe worst in bus drivers and he understands their thinking.

“Everybody sees them run stop signs and driving too fast, but to me, when I leave that bus shop, no matter what time it is, and we have hauled 3,200 children home safely and I didn’t let one of them get hurt and we didn’t com- pletely lose one – we misplace them from time to time, but we don’t lose them, then it’s a good day.”

All the other, he said, is secondary. “We can fix a bus.”