Hillsborough transportation trainer: "The fox is guarding the henhouse"
Hillsborough County school district officials have questioned four transportation trainers who penned a letter last week outlining what they describe as continued safety problems affecting special-needs students.
"Can I say mismanagement and a lack of oversight? Yes," trainer Corie Holmes told reporters Tuesday. Holmes, 36, is also a Democratic candidate for Manatee County Commission.
Holmes said he and coworkers Juanita Juarez, Twyla Tillman and John Saffold drove together to their separate interviews Monday at the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), which investigates cases of misconduct involving district employees.
Deputy Superintendent Jeff Eakins said it was logical for OPS to conduct the interviews, as they are independent of the transportation department. But when they finish their work, Eakins said, the investigators will consult with the transportation department and with deputy superintendent Cathy Valdes, who oversees facilities and transportation.
Eakins said the district staff has at least several more days of work before they report back to the School Board, which received the memo on Feb. 11 from member April Griffin.
At a lunch-hour meeting Tuesday with Gradebook and a local radio reporter, Holmes elaborated on the allegations in the letter.
Describing an incident at the Lopez Exceptional Center, he said he and Juarez observed a bus pulling in with a child who was medically needy and strapped improperly in his seat.
"We were just stop-checking," he said. "While we were at the ramp, a driver backed in ... We look and we see that the driver pulls the student off the bus. He's got a feeding tube and this kid was so medically fragile that we didn't even know if he was breathing. That's how bad it was. While sitting in the wheelchair, his head was touching his feet. That's horrible."
What followed, he said, was a series of meetings and communications. "You will not document and you will not put that in writing," he says his supervisor told him. "Since then, it's been hell for me."
Juarez said next to nothing during the interview, but agreed with everything Holmes said.
Tillman, another of the four, who was not at the interview, was a witness in another incident at Caminiti Exceptional Center. In that incident, according to the letter, a child was clearly medically fragile. Tillman asked the bus driver if the student had "red alert" status, which requires drivers to be familiar with their conditions and how to respond in an emergency. The driver said, "I don't know."
Holmes contends some of the problems date back to 2007, when the school district hired general transportation manager John Franklin and streamlined the department to save money during the recession. Part of the savings, he said, came from eliminating area Exceptional Student Education (ESE) route coordinators, who provided hands-on instruction to drivers throughout the district.
He says that rather than dealing with problems, his supervisors are trying to disparage him. "Essentially, you have the fox guarding the henhouse," he said.
OPS investigators and school board members are not the only ones listening to what Holmes and his colleagues have to say.
Lawyers for the family of Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old special-needs student who died in 2012 after a ride on an ESE bus, want to re-open discovery in their federal lawsuit in order to despose the four trainers and re-depose Franklin.
The district has until Thursday to respond to their motion, and Judge James Moody will make the final call.
The dust-up comes after a long period of soul-searching in the district, which saw Isabella and another ESE student lose their lives in 2012. A work group, headed by Eakins, came up with dozens of recommendations for training and safety improvements, including the buses.
Training has been stepped up, Eakins said last week.
But, when asked if conditions are measureably safer, Holmes said he hasn't seen much progress.
"They created a form," Holmes said, referring to a process of resporting that takes place when issues arise affecting ESE students. "But the process "is not effective and it's not efficient."
Trainers such as Juarez and Tillman have been instructing drivers in how to properly secure students in their seats, Holmes said. "But there's drivers right now on the road that have not completed this."