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School bus driver's bathroom complaint brings apology from new superintendent

LARGO — Joe Morgan was tired of talking about it.

The 49-year-old Pinellas County school bus driver had come to the School Board meeting multiple times in a year to ask for something simple: bathroom privileges.

On Tuesday, he was back, and this time he wanted an apology.

"When I lived in the country," he said, "I built a lean-to for my German shepherds so that when it rained and it got cold, . . . I could walk them outside so they wouldn't get wet. This school district won't give my school bus drivers, brothers and sisters, the same decency."

Bus drivers at some schools, he said, have been turned away from using bathrooms nearest to school entrances.

Board members listened. Staff listened. Deputy Superintendent Jim Madden listened.

"I've been trying to get my secretary to get in touch with you for a week," Madden said. So far, no luck.

Morgan said he'd given his number to Madden's secretary. He said he'd written e-mails to each board member. Everyone already knew his complaint.

Or, almost everyone.

Morgan turned his attention to the white-haired newcomer in the superintendent's chair.

"I know you get it perfectly, Dr. Stewart," he said.

John A. Stewart, the 67-year-old man board members picked as an interim superintendent help stabilize a school district fraught with controversy, acknowledged his concern.

"I'm not familiar with what you're talking about," he began.

Morgan braced himself, then he interrupted. "This isn't my first rodeo. I've been here before," he said. "All I'm asking, begging for, is decency. Human decency."

Stewart leaned into the microphone again. A former superintendent with 13 years leading Polk County schools, this surely wasn't the first or last disgruntled employee he would deal with.

Since he started his temporary job replacing the fired Julie Janssen on Sept. 3, Stewart has taken appointments with thorns-in-the-side of past administrators. He set aside an hour last week to speak with a former employee who feels he was inappropriately fired. He personally walked a loud district critic to his secretary to schedule a meeting.

"Don't think I can fix anything that comes up," Stewart says to explain. "I can't. But I'm willing to listen to anyone."

So, on Tuesday, Stewart told Morgan he wanted to meet with him during a meeting break.

"I'd like to hear what you have to say," he said. "We'll listen to what you have to say, and we'll find out if we can find an answer for it."

During the break, Stewart and the bus driver stepped into a private room along with Madden and one other person. Stewart apologized on behalf of the school district. He told him he would speak to principals.

"If it happened once," he said he told the driver, "it happened once too many."

Leaving the meeting, Morgan said he's ready for the issue to disappear. He hopes that it does. He wants to never speak about bathrooms again. On Tuesday night, he felt heard and he said he left with at least one thing he'd come seeking.

"He apologized," Morgan said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

School bus driver's bathroom complaint brings apology from new superintendent 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 11:52pm]
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