TAMPA — Not so long ago, Dave Schmidt was something of an expert on refugee education in Florida.
For nearly 12 years he managed CARIBE, a federally funded program within the Hillsborough County school district that helps legal immigrants learn English and develop job skills on a budget of $2.3 million.
But in his free time, he had hobbies: running for a seat on the School Board, blogging for Republican causes, and calling out board members whom he'd opposed in past races. And he may have pushed the envelope a bit too hard.
This fall his pay was cut and he was demoted. His blogging may have drawn attention and complaints, but a subsequent investigation revealed he paid his stepson to design and maintain the program's Web site for around $16,000 beginning in the late 1990s, and never filled out the district's conflict-of-interest form.
These days he has a new job: school bus inspector. He spends his days making sure bus stops and ramps are safe, finding substitute drivers, and helping make sure the buses run on time.
District officials say Schmidt, 60, was demoted for failing to fill out the conflict-of-interest form, and that it had nothing to do with his blogging.
"As a result of your failure to comply with School Board policy, the district has determined that it is not in their best interest to continue you in your current or any future managerial position," professional standards manager Linda Kipley said in a letter.
Schmidt sees it differently.
"I always felt I was on safe, free speech ground," Schmidt said. " I think this whole thing was politically motivated. I think it's reprisal."
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Schmidt's early career path showed few hints of politics. He worked for years as a factory foreman for defense contractors in the Tampa Bay area, supervising the production of jet fighter simulators and other components.
But those jobs moved offshore, and in 1998 he applied to manage the new CARIBE program.
It was far from glamorous, with offices in trailers outside the Erwin Technical Center building on East Hillsborough Avenue. On any given afternoon or evening in recent years, those trailers were often filled to capacity with adult students learning English at computers or in small groups.
Schmidt said he was proud of what he accomplished with CARIBE, growing the program from around 150 students to nearly 2,000.
"The purpose is developing economic self-sufficiency for everyone who comes through," he said. "And learning English is certainly part of that."
But the more he saw of the Hillsborough County School Board, the more he came to believe that he could do a better job than incumbents. In 2006 and 2008 he ran for a seat on the board, but fell short.
"I was not running for a job, I already had a job," Schmidt said. "I thought I could lend my expertise to raise high school graduation rates and reduce dropout rates."
He started his blog last winter, and immediately went after incumbents April Griffin and Susan Valdes.
"I must be doing something right by annoying the pro-Valdes and pro-Griffin folks," Schmidt wrote in an early posting. "Even a good friend suggested my Web address be sourgrapes.com. Oh, yeah. … well maybe. It is still fun telling the truth."
Not fun for everyone. In June, he learned that he was being investigated by the district for both the conflict of interest and for "inappropriate comments" made about School Board members on his blog.
"Things were brought to my attention, and I turned it in to the superintendent, as I would for anybody who works for the school district," said board member Griffin. "It was someone from within CARIBE that reported it to me. Someone who didn't like the fact that he gave a no-bid contract to his (stepson)."
She declined to comment on his blog postings, but defended his right to free speech.
"As someone who has and maintains a blog, I truly support a person's right to discuss whatever they want — whether it's positive or negative — about the district," Griffin said.
Schmidt told the district his supervisors had known he was employing his stepson, Thor Torgersen, but his bosses told investigators they had no such recollection. He said he hadn't been aware of the conflict form.
In her September report, Kipley said he wouldn't be punished for his blogging — as long as the information was accurate and he didn't speak for the district or as an employee.
"You are reminded of that obligation," Kipley wrote. "No further action will be taken based on this conduct."
Schmidt chose not to fight it. He's glad to have a job, even with the $10,000 pay cut to $27,546.
But he has no intention of ending his blog.
"I think a lot of the things I wrote were humorous," Schmidt said. "I never thought it would come back and bite me."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.