When is it enough to be fired?
The Pinellas school board had a long discussion Tuesday night about a longtime bus driver, with a history of issues, who was caught using a cell phone while driving even though she had been warned about it twice before.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-2 to approve Superintendent Julie Janssen’s recommendation to suspend the driver for 30 days and put her on probationary status for six months. But along the way, board members, board attorney Jim Robinson and associate counsel Laurie Dart waded into the topic of “progressive discipline” – and why a recommendation to fire may have been strongly challenged at a legal hearing.
Dart said there is a provision in the contract between the district and the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) “that says that one only looks back two years for progressive discipline purposes.” The driver in question, Sharon Gulley, has been disciplined 10 times since she began working for the district in 1990, but was suspended only once – in 1992. (See more details in the board agenda packet, beginning on page 111.)
Said Dart: “So that suspension, one would argue, and SEIU argues every hearing, does not apply. And one doesn’t build on a suspension that is over two years old. So … there would be an argument that jumping to dismissal at this stage does not follow progressive discipline. That would obviously be an argument we would disagree with at any hearing, but it is nevertheless an argument that would need to be overcome in that judicial process. By entering into this stipulation, we avoid that issue.”
Robinson said later in the discussion that he thought the contract needed to be changed: “I am concerned with the contract. And that is the board’s contract. And we had trouble with the contract before. We may want to change it. In fact, that would be my suggestion. That we negotiate that out of the contract. Because I think it’s contrary to good judgment and I think it needs to go. But for the time being, it is the board’s contractual obligation.”
Board member Robin Wikle said the right recommendation was for the driver to be fired. After Dart said the stipulation left little or no risk to the district – because the employee agreed to be an at-will employee for six months – Wikle said, “I think little risk to the district could be a lot of risk to our students who are riding on the bus for the fourth time she uses that cell phone.”
Board member Janet Clark also wanted a tougher penalty: “It’s the safety of students and I’m just not willing to hope that this woman is going to go by the stipulation and not drive the bus while she’s talking on the cell phone. After three times, I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m that trusting.”
Dart noted the recommendation was crafted with input from the Office of Professional Standards and the transportation department, “who works with this woman on a daily basis and we think is more qualified to assess whether they truly think she is going to be rehabilitated.”
Janssen suggested there may have been extenuating circumstances – including deaths of family members - that led to the recommendation for suspension instead of termination. “I believe that could have been one of the factors her supervisor felt was compelling enough for her to recommend to OPS to give her another chance,” she said.
Board members Lew Williams and Carol Cook said the board needed to support the recommendation from administration, which looked at the case in detail.
“I don’t know that we would win an administrative hearing,” Cook said. “And the amount of money that would go into that versus what could be learned during a 30-day suspension. I’m going to have to trust that the Office of Professional Standards and the attorneys and the superintendent came up with the best decision on this one.”