Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Emotions overflow during Hillsborough school transportation discussions

TAMPA — Even by Hillsborough County School Board standards, it was a raucous meeting.

A whistleblower traded insults with board member Stacy White. A community activist warned superintendent MaryEllen Elia of a plot against her. Board members tried to compel Elia to answer questions about a 2012 tragedy.

And, through it all, leaders of the nation's eighth largest school district struggled with the difficulty of getting 90,000-plus children safely to school and home again.

"We all know we have to make improvements," said Elia, who will meet with employees throughout the district in the coming weeks.

After months of town hall and focus group meetings, some problems are widely known: Buses are old. Driver morale is low. Labor issues in the repair shop have chased managers away. The department's chief, John Franklin, resigned last week.

Frustration was apparent Tuesday, in drivers who said they have no voice; and in board members who alternately confronted and defended Elia.

It started near the beginning, when members April Griffin, Susan Valdes and Cindy Stuart voted to require Elia to answer questions that have dogged her since the family of Isabella Herrera sued in 2012, nine months after their special-needs daughter died.

Valdes wanted to know how Elia did not know about the respiratory failure Isabella, 7, suffered on a bus the day before she died. Griffin wanted to know if Elia held staff accountable later for not keeping her informed.

A motion to require a detailed explanation from Elia failed, 4-3. Member Doretha Edgecomb bemoaned "the atmosphere of total mistrust and disrespect" between Elia and her critics.

Drivers streamed into the meeting room after their shifts, responding to a prior remark by Chairwoman Carol Kurdell, that the district should consider privatizing its bus service.

"Don't just kick us to the curb," driver Ruby Shannon said. "We're bus drivers. We're professionals."

Annie Lockley said drivers transport at least 200 students each, every day, and contend with student behavior problems. "We are trained to handle all these situations and we do."

Michael Hadley, the community activist, warned Elia that Griffin and Valdes were trying to have her fired. Griffin denied that on the spot.

Then member Stacy White took a direct hit from Corie Holmes, a transportation trainer who is running for Manatee County Commission and whose complaints helped launch the Hillsborough investigations. Holmes accused White of neglecting his office as he campaigns for a Hillsborough County Commission seat.

"Your people need to hear from you," he said. "And if you can't do your job as a School Board member and hold the superintendent accountable, we won't want you as a county commissioner."

White noted — as Kurdell tried to quiet him down — Holmes' own political campaign.

"If you're elected to that office, and I seriously doubt that you will be, you won't have the opportunity to make statements like that and walk away," White said.

Twice, at the beginning of the meeting and later for the drivers, Elia shared the department's recent history. She said the board and district embraced cost-cutting to get through the recession without laying off teachers.

She said the district tried twice to buy buses in 2013. Board members rejected both plans, a decision they've defended, citing problems with the proposals.

Despite Kurdell's suggestion, Elia said, "I do not want to have privatization on the table."

She assured the drivers, "I know how important you are in this district. I am accepting that we have to work together to reach solutions."

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