LAND O'LAKES — Dolores Conley had plenty of warnings not to make calls or send text messages while driving her Pasco school bus.
She was reprimanded once in 2006, twice in 2007 and twice more in 2010. The last time, she received a five-day suspension and a warning that another incident could cost her job.
Then Conley was reported again, by three separate instructional assistants on her bus, this past spring.
She contested superintendent Heather Fiorentino's recommendation to fire her. But on Monday the Pasco County School Board unanimously upheld the superintendent's action.
"It's about student safety," board member Alison Crumbley said after the vote.
Board members listened to almost three hours of testimony, including several recountings of Conley's cell phone use while driving a school bus — sometimes with students on board, other times without students.
"I did notice that the bus driver was talking on her cell phone and she was texting," Chasco Elementary employee Jackie Foster told the board. Foster rode on Conley's bus as a pre-K sub one April afternoon.
Conley offered several explanations. She said that, after her September 2010 suspension, she only used the cell phone when no students were on board and after she had pulled her bus to a complete stop and locked it down. That's what the school district policy allowed, she suggested, although her direct supervisors told the board otherwise.
Conley also offered that she had family matters that sometimes forced her to keep a phone nearby to deal with emergencies. Sometimes, a bus aide would answer for her.
As far as safety goes, she told the board, "I'm probably one of the best of the best. … I just have a lot of compassion 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.
Board members at Monday's hearing noticed Conley changed details of her testimony, even as she said other witnesses were lying while she was being truthful. When asked how often she had used her cell phone while driving, Conley responded, "I got caught five times in six years."
The board rejected Conley's lawyer's interpretation of district policy on cell phone use. They agreed that driving a bus can be stressful, but said bus drivers have an important job that must be done safely.
"Although the witnesses may not have been able to give a specific time or date, their testimony was consistent," board chairwoman Joanne Hurley told Conley. "Following your suspension, there were instances when you were improperly using" your cell phone.
The board turned down a proposal to remove Conley, a 49-year-old single mother, from driving a bus but allow her to remain on staff in a different capacity. It instructed board attorney Dennis Alfonso to put Conley's termination in writing for a formal vote at the next board meeting.
Fiorentino said she was satisfied with the outcome.
School buses weigh about 13 tons empty, she noted, and studies show a driver is 23 times more likely to have an accident if texting while driving.
"Parents give the schools their most precious thing, their child," Fiorentino said. "We have a responsibility to make sure that they're safe."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.