TAMPA — Point by point, Hillsborough County's school superintendent responded Tuesday to a memo by four school transportation trainers alleging unsafe conditions and a culture of silence.
Minutes later, two members of the School Board made clear they don't trust MaryEllen Elia's administration to handle the situation appropriately.
"We're conducting a full investigation to determine if the concerns are warranted," Elia said. "I want to make sure we support our employees' reporting of actual or perceived safety issues."
She addressed some of the workers' 15 concerns about a promised training center, a broken school bus wash and the availability of mechanics after hours.
Other assertions are being investigated by the district's Office of Professional Standards, Elia said, adding that a transcript will be available to the public when that process is concluded.
But board member April Griffin said she is troubled by what she has heard from the trainers who complained — that their supervisors are involved in the investigation, and that a video was removed from one employee's bus while he was not present, a possible labor union contract violation.
"I am very concerned that there is bias in this investigation," she said.
Griffin said that, during one questioning session, workers were advised of the chain of command. "When our employees are reminded of chain of command, it is a message to them," she said.
She said an independent investigation is warranted, and member Susan Valdes agreed.
"Maybe we should get a retired FBI agent or someone to do this kind of work," Valdes said. "I just want the truth."
The exchange happened just days after Griffin, a critic of Elia, announced she will seek a third term on the board.
Griffin, who has not yet filed her candidacy paperwork, said she decided to run because the memo suggests the district has not resolved issues that came to light after two special-needs students died in 2012.
The memo described a driver who did not know he had a passenger with "red alert" status, which requires employees to be familiar with a child's medical needs. In the other incident, a medically fragile child was strapped incorrectly to his seat.
Both times, the trainers allege, they were told not to document the problems. Those cases are part of the investigation.
While Griffin and Valdes argued for an independent investigation, board member Doretha Edgecomb said if the board cannot trust its own staff to perform a fair investigation, "then we ought to fix that." Stacy White and Candy Olson similarly said the inquiry should be inhouse.
Cindy Stuart, while not convinced an outside investigation was needed, said she was troubled by reports that problems persist in exceptional-student education.
She described one phone call she took from an ESE parent who was terrified when her child's bus was an hour late. "We have got to keep foremost in our mind that this is about kids, especially the ESE kids," she said.
No vote was taken on the outside investigation. Griffin, outnumbered, ultimately agreed to let Elia's investigation proceed.
Some of the trainers who wrote the memo were in the audience, along with drivers who addressed the board. They talked of double and triple duty, children confused about which bus to ride, a shortage of supervisors and searing heat in buses without air conditioning.
"This is the eighth largest district in the country, and we look like fools," said Sheila Mingo, who joined the district in 1997 and earns $16,000 annually.
Kelmie Bigelow, hired in 2011, earns $14,000 in base pay but drives on field trips for extra money. She said she sometimes serves three schools in the morning and four in the afternoon.
"There definitely need to be some changes from top to bottom," she said. Others drivers would have attended "but they could not get time off or they are afraid of backlash," she added.
Responding to these and other issues, Elia recently invited all bus drivers to attend focus group meetings in eight locations scattered around the district in March.
Bigelow called the focus groups "too late, too little."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or email@example.com.