LAND O'LAKES — A Pasco County school bus driver is accused of texting while driving a bus — and could lose her job for it.
Dolores Conley disputes the accusation, acknowledging she had sent text messages, but only after parking the bus and making sure no kids were on board.
That line of defense failed to persuade superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who has recommended firing Conley. Looming large in Fiorentino's reasoning were four previous warnings Conley has received since 2006 for improper cell phone use while driving.
"Ms. Conley, due to the fact that you continue your unsafe, inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, it is apparent to me that you have not take the letters given to you in the past seriously," Fiorentino wrote. "After considering the information in this matter, I conclude your actions are unsafe to the people riding your school bus."
The alleged incident happened in April. The outcome of the matter, which heads to the Pasco School Board on Tuesday, hinges on the definition of "operating a bus."
Fiorentino has suggested that it means any time a bus driver is in the driver's seat. Conley, who is known on her routes as Miss Lori, takes a more generous view.
She pointed to district policy, which states that wireless devices "shall not be used for any purpose … anytime the operator is actively driving a District school bus, with or without students on board."
"That to me says as long as that bus is moving you are not to use your phone," said Conley, a 49-year-old single mom. "But if you are pulled over … you can use your cell phone. That is what I did."
She said she would not put children in danger. She's called on some connected friends to support her case.
Former School Board member Kathryn Starkey said she is writing a letter to the district on Conley's behalf, urging officials to take a closer look at Conley's record and all the facts before taking action on her employment. Starkey's husband has coached one of Conley's children in baseball for about six years.
"She's a good person," Starkey said.
Conley said she needs her $11.70-per-hour job, but it's not just about the money.
"I am fighting this because I love what I do for a living," Conley said. "I am there for the kids."
She has driven routes for 16 schools over her six years on the job. Most recently her routes have covered Chasco Elementary and Middle schools, and River Ridge Middle and High schools.
Texting while driving is not against Florida law, but Conley's United School Employees of Pasco representative called it a "no-no." It's distracting and dangerous.
Thirty-two states have banned texting for all drivers. Three others — Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas — have specific bans for school bus drivers.
Pasco County schools have similar rules.
"Student safety is always our primary concern," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said. "The rules we have in place are to protect students. Certainly the rules involving school bus drivers and cell phones fall into that category."
Conley appealed her recommended dismissal to Fiorentino, who did not change the recommendation. USEP representative Jim Ciadella said he is helping Conley to get legal advice leading to Tuesday's meeting.
"We may ask them to pull" the recommendation from the agenda, he said.
The district does not keep records of the numbers of cases it has seen in any category of policy violations. Officials said this is not the first time an employee has faced dismissal for inappropriate cell phone use.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.