NEW PORT RICHEY — Tiffany Prete couldn't take it any more.
First, Pasco County utility workers took frequent breaks in the shaded area behind her insurance office on Little Road at Ridge Road. Next came a guy and his girlfriend meeting for romance.
The Pasco school district van parked there for hours at a time, with someone sleeping inside, was the last straw.
"This is not a place to hang out," Prete said. "Enough was enough."
She called the district to complain. "The van is out there now," she reported at about 10:45 a.m. Oct. 13, "and it's been there since around 9 a.m."
"Check it out for yourself," she urged.
Two district officials showed up about 15 minutes later. Now air conditioning specialist Steven Hedges is about to lose his job.
Hedges, 59, has worked for the Pasco County school district since September 2007 without previous incident. He contended he's being railroaded.
"I wasn't there at 9 a.m.," Hedges said. "I took lunch a little early. … I was there for 20 minutes."
Before that, he said, he was working on a chiller at Fox Hollow Elementary. He claimed the chiller records prove it, something that district officials dispute.
Hedges acknowledged that he sometimes would stop in the parking lot behind the insurance office because it's shady and a good spot for quick bite. "A lot of people park there and eat lunch."
But he strenuously denied napping on the job, suggesting perhaps some other district worker might have also found the spot and parked back there.
Prete said she was sure it was the man district officials identified as Hedges. She saw his face, as did her co-workers, on more than one occasion in the lot.
"You could see what he looks like," she said. "He's the same guy as before. … We reported him because it's not the first time he did it."
Hedges' direct supervisor told the district employee relations office that Hedges admitted to taking more than one unauthorized break. That along with the other collected information prompted a move to dismiss him, according to a letter from employee relations director Kevin Shibley.
"Your actions are entirely unacceptable and constitute a theft of time and money from the district," Shibley wrote in his letter informing Hedges of plans to recommend his firing.
Hedges met with superintendent Heather Fiorentino a few days later. He said he asked for proof of his alleged misdeeds, but was rebuffed.
"I asked for copies of their investigative file. They said no," he recounted. "I said, 'Tell me who called. Show me the documents you say I've falsified.' They wouldn't give them to me."
District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said the public records were available by request, but that Hedges had not made such a request.
Neither had he filed a formal appeal of Fiorentino's dismissal recommendation. So the School Board is set to take up his termination at its Nov. 22 meeting without a hearing, although Hedges may speak publicly at the meeting if he chooses to.
"What makes me mad is, it's probably my fault I didn't appeal it," he said. "Nothing was explained to me. I was just given this letter. I'm not a lawyer. I don't understand all this stuff."
Now, he lamented, he doesn't know how he will make ends meet.
"I am behind on everything I owe," said Hedges, who made $14.55 an hour until placed on suspension without pay in October. "I'm living day to day off of pocket change. … They've really, really screwed me."
Prete said she felt bad about that, to a point.
"I wasn't trying to get the guy fired," she said. "All I wanted them to do was reprimand him. The economy is so rough."
She paused, and then continued the thought.
"There's too many people out there who need a job who would love his job," Prete added. "If he just wants to sit out there and slack on the job, it's not fair."
Earlier this fall, the School Board reprimanded two elementary school custodians for filing time cards stating they were working after they had left for home. Their supervisor is appealing Fiorentino's recommendation that he be fired for instigating the scenario.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.