TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes' community conversation Monday night drew about 40 people despite a day of rain and talk of intimidation among the employee ranks.
Some of the guests at the Town 'N Country church were candidates for the School Board, or former candidates. There was a woman running for judge.
But more than half were employees of the transportation department, now in the spotlight because of a critical memo signed by four trainers. Three of the four sat in the back of the room, sometimes agreeing with what the others said.
Transportation is the final item on the agenda for Tuesday's 3 p.m. School Board meeting, which could make for a lively discussion among the divided board.
Workers Monday raised issues that were more related to personnel than student safety, which is the focus of ongoing investigations in the district.
But the themes — bullying, favoritism and inefficient management — caught the attention of Valdes and fellow member April Griffin, who attended and is planning a series of town hall meetings of her own.
Ultimately, the workers said, the way the department is run is not in the best interest of anyone, including students and taxpayers.
"I double, I triple, whatever I need to do," said driver Calvin Upshaw. "At the age of 23 I was taken off the bus because they thought I had a stroke."
Nor, others said, is their labor union able to resolve the issues.
"I've exhausted all those channels and I've run out of options," said driver Mathew Thompson. "Sometimes I feel like the problem is still in existence so they still have members."
There was no one from the district to respond to the many allegations about everything from scheduling to due process during evaluations.
One, Bonnie Dukes, has an adverse employment suit against the district, which Griffin and Valdes were careful not to discuss "because my name is on the lawsuit," Griffin explained.
Shawn Livingston, the former assistant principal at Rodgers Middle School who lost his job after the death of special-needs student Jennifer Caballero, spoke as well. Livingston thanked the board members who awarded him a partial year of back pay and ruled that he should not have been fired for cause. Instead, he was released from his employment contract at the end of the school year. That matter is now before the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Livingston said that during his time at Rodgers, his efforts to report safety issues on the campus fell on deaf ears. The district said he should have corrected issues among the special-education aides that allowed Jennifer to disappear during gym class. She drowned that day in a pond behind the pool.
The evening was part fact-finding and part support group, with Griffin and Valdes encouraging employees to continue to speak out. "Sue me any day, so long as it's for the right reason," Valdes said at one point.
She and Griffin also mentioned Cindy Stuart, a third board member who has challenged the administration on personnel and other management issues.
"Reach out to either one of us, or Cindy, with any of your concerns," Griffin said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]