TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin is taking the unusual step of organizing her own discussion sessions with bus drivers after being turned away from a focus group meeting where drivers aired concerns.
Griffin said she doesn't trust the school district, which has organized eight focus group sessions to deal with the issues being raised.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't trust the process," Griffin said after she was turned away Wednesday from a session at Sickles High School. "I think there is more of a need to control information than to straighten out the issues."
Organizers asked School Board members and administrators not to attend to avoid inhibiting participants from speaking.
Hearing Griffin's idea, fellow board member Susan Valdes said, "Great minds think alike. I was just talking to the library about putting on my own town hall meeting."
But member Candy Olson said a large public meeting will not accomplish the goal of uncovering useful information. She suggested it might be "a campaign stunt" on the part of Griffin, who recently announced she will seek a third term on the board.
The district had no comment, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia called the focus group sessions in light of complaints from drivers about training and safety issues, some affecting special-needs students. Four transportation trainers, who signed a memo in January, contend that when mistakes happen, they are told not to document them.
The district's Business Process Improvement department is conducting the focus groups. Drivers' comments are anonymous and will be compiled in a report.
But Griffin said she wants to hear the discussions firsthand. "I think that being there, hearing what is said, observing the body language is much more telling than getting a report through the superintendent," she said. "I don't believe my presence would taint the process or keep the drivers from speaking their mind."
Griffin said she will invite the entire board to her meetings. She envisions four and hopes parents will come, too.
Olson said she might go, but questioned Griffin's mistrust of the department that is running the focus group.
"I guess she doesn't understand what focus groups are and do," Olson said. "Some people will not talk at a board meeting or in a big group. But in a relatively small group in a quiet, safe environment, we can really get at their concerns."
As for Griffin acting on her own, Olson said, "School Board members can do whatever they want. But the superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day management of the district. And this is either day-to-day management, or a campaign stunt."
Olson did not deny that exceptional student education and transportation need attention. The district needs new buses, she said. And "ESE is understaffed, from transportation to instruction."
Valdes agreed the issues have been brewing for far too long. "I have been working on things like this for 10 years and for me it's nothing new," she said.
"It just has finally risen to the top. The non-instructional side is not where it needs to be as far as accountability."
The dustup comes as lawyers work to settle a federal lawsuit that alleges the district's treatment of disabled students is so poor that it amounts to discrimination.
Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old child with a neuromuscular disorder, died in January 2012 after she stopped breathing while on a school bus and did not get emergency treatment for about 15 minutes. The district denies it discriminates and has tried to have the case dismissed from federal court.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]