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Daniel Ruth: The pottymouth bullies in Hillsborough schools are on the board

By Daniel Ruth
Hillsborough school board member Susan Valdes is accused in a lawsuit that alleges intrigue, cronyism and possible violations of Florida's open government Sunshine Laws. [Times file (2009)]

If you didn’t know any better you would think what is passing for a lawsuit against the School Board of Hillsborough County more accurately reads like the minutes of a Borgia family reunion.

Or put another way, if fired school human resources chief Stephanie Woodford’s allegations pan out in court, it seems school officials apparently spend more time stabbing one another in the back than Julius Caesar’s ill-fated visit to the Roman Senate.

Et tu Susan Valdes?

Woodford was given the axe back in April for reasons that no doubt will be in dispute as her lawsuit moves forward. But this much is pretty certain. Woodford has painted a not very pretty picture of intrigue, cronyism, possible violations of Florida’s open government Sunshine Laws and juvenile pettiness by a School Board that can raise its pouty power over something as benign as who the plaintiff meets for lunch.

Oh, and then there is the charge that School Board member Susan Valdes is a bigger potty mouth than the time Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman last dined together.

According to the lawsuit, Woodford got herself sideways with Valdes after Woodford blocked the hiring of Susan Miguel Torena, a pal of the School Board member, for a teaching position. After all, as the head of the district’s human resources department, it had come to the attention of Woodford the job candidate lacked a teaching certificate, which is sort of expected of teachers who teach in the classroom.

But the applicant did possess one vital qualification for the position since she had once been Valdes’ campaign chairman. And here’s the part where you should remove small children from the room.

When she met with Woodford about the dubious hire, the lawsuit claims a sitting School Board member told the head of the district’s human resources department, "... the only thing that matters in this district are the three P’s, That’s Power, Position and P----- and I’ve got all three so don’t (insert naughty word) with me."

Now there’s some professional dignity for you.

And apparently Valdes was onto something, since her political associate was eventually hired behind Woodford’s back.

But Woodford was only just getting warmed up in her legal filing, accusing Board chairman Cindy Stuart of violating Sunshine Law provisions by trying to persuade board member Lynn Gray to change her evaluation of Superintendant Jeff Eakins.

More weirdly, Woodford details a lunch she had with Dan Valdez, her predecessor in the human resources department. According to Woodford, when Stuart, School Board attorney Jim Porter and other officials learned of the lunch appointment, they galumphed to the restaurant to confront Woodford. Indeed, Woodford relates how she was forced by the district’s chief of staff Alberto Vazquez to write a letter of apology for breaking bread with someone the district mandarin regarded as "evil at work."

I know, I know, you’re still going back five paragraphs ago in disbelief a member of the Hillsborough County School Board sounds like Donald Trump sitting around an Access Hollywood bus. But let’s press on.

For her part, Stuart insisted to the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol that she was "personally disappointed and borderline appalled" by Woodford’s lawsuit, which begs a question.

How is it possible to be "borderline appalled"? Appalled is a fairly concise term. You can’t be sort of appalled, or semi-appalled, or modestly appalled. You would think the chairwoman overseeing one of the 10 largest school districts in the United States would have a better handle on simple English.

No one would probably be shocked if Woodford’s lawsuit is settled out of court. After all, does Valdes really want to be asked in a deposition why she swears enough like a sailor to embarrass Glengarry Glen Ross playwright David Mamet?

And does Stuart want to explain her vigilante-like ambush of Woodford over her choice of lunch companions?

And does the rest of the sniping, juvenile, shallow school administration want to justify their schoolyard bullying behavior?

Now that’s appalling.