Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Turmoil continues in Hillsborough school bus system as more supervisors quit

TAMPA — Problems, accusations and resignations continue in the department that maintains buses for the Hillsborough County school district.

In recent days Willie Campbell, the administration manager for the transportation department, resigned, district officials said. Campbell, 58, joined the district in 1998 and was one of the highest-paid employees in the department at $85,900.

Tim Seidel, a fleet shop foreman, retired at 61 on April 1. Richard "Dewayne" Bethune, one of the repair shop supervisors, left soon after. Bethune, 51, said it was difficult to manage the mechanics who repair the district's 1,400 buses, and said he did not get support he needed from the district administration. Seidel said he faced similar issues.

Things are so contentious that on April 11, fleet manager James Kennett was accused of drinking on the job.

Kennett insisted he didn't, and never has in his career. District spokesman Stephen Hegarty confirmed that Kennett voluntarily took a breath test and passed.

Kennett said the incident began when he noticed that a mechanic, who has clashed with him and Bethune in the past, was standing outside for about 35 minutes.

"I told him he needed to get inside and get to work," Kennett said. About 45 minutes later, he said, transportation general manager John Franklin showed up at his office to follow up on a report he received from the security department.

"I demanded to go take a test right then," Kennett said, adding that he took and passed the breath test at a laboratory in Temple Terrace the district uses for its employees.

Campbell could not be reached for comment.

Seidel, who now works for a private truck company, said district officials are trying to rehire him, and negotiations are under way. But "there's hostility in the system with me coming back," he said. "There's people who refuse to change."

The district wants to hire Bethune back as well, Hegarty said.

The resignations come as School Board members continue to hold town hall meetings to discuss a broad range of problems in the transportation department.

The gatherings typically attract 40 to 80 employees, mostly drivers. They've complained about safety and personnel issues, often naming Franklin and sometimes Kennett.

Regardless of who is to blame, the conflict is taking its toll. "Even the good workers are acting like they want to give up," Kennett said, emphasizing that "most of the guys here are great. We just have a few who are not what they should be."

Multiple investigations are under way as the district conducts focus groups and sifts through the allegations.

A consultant's report is expected in early May. Among other things, the district is trying to replace some of its buses, which are among the oldest in the state.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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