Schools bus chief put on leave

Published Nov. 20, 2000|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

A district lawyer would not say if the leave is related to the probe of another transportation official.

Michael Fleming, the Pinellas County school district's transportation director, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.

This comes three weeks after another high-ranking transportation official _ Nancy Blackwelder, who oversees bus routes _ was also placed on paid administrative leave.

Reached at home Sunday afternoon, district lawyer Jackie Spoto confirmed that Fleming was placed on leave Nov. 13. She would not say whether the investigations involving Fleming and Blackwelder are connected.

"It's only for purposes of investigation," Spoto said. "I'm not at liberty to comment on why."

State law prevents district officials from discussing ongoing investigations against School Board employees. Around district headquarters, some have said privately that this investigation seems more secretive than usual.

Even School Board members remain largely in the dark, though Spoto said they were going to be notified late Sunday that Fleming had been placed on leave.

Officials hope to wrap up the investigations soon _ but they are not saying exactly when.

Spoto said no one has been appointed as the interim transportation director while two top officials are out of the office. She said an assistant director, Susan Collins, was running day-to-day bus operations.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley was out of town Sunday and could not be reached for comment. Fleming, who supervises Blackwelder, did not return a phone message left at his home.

District officials have been equally vague about the investigation into Blackwelder. All district officials would confirm is that Blackwelder, who survived a 1988 shooting at Pinellas Park High School, was not being punished for appearing in recent Charlie Crist campaign ads.

Crist, who won the education commissioner's job Nov. 7, featured Blackwelder in a television ad about his proposal to increase school safety. School employees are free to participate in politics as long as it's not on school grounds or during working hours, Hinesley has said.

Blackwelder was an assistant principal at Pinellas Park High in 1988 when a student shot and killed another assistant principal, Richard Allen. Blackwelder and a teacher were injured.

Since then, she has traveled around the country giving speeches about crisis planning in schools.

Blackwelder was placed on leave in late October. She has worked for the district for more than 25 years and was rated by Fleming as highly effective in her most recent evaluation.

Efforts by phone and e-mail to reach Blackwelder since early November have been unsuccessful.

Fleming came to Pinellas County five years ago from Prince Georges County, Md., where he was director of school transportation. Information about his salary and recent evaluations was not available because district offices were closed.

But in the years since Fleming took over Pinellas' school bus operations, he has been praised for numerous improvements to the department that employs 700 people and transports about 44,000 students daily.

For instance, Fleming has spearheaded the purchase of dozens of air-conditioned buses that feature AM/FM radios and video cameras. He has revamped driver training to put more emphasis on managing student passengers.

The School Board used to get dozens and dozens of calls the first day of school about bus problems; those calls have dwindled since Fleming took over the department, officials said. Fleming is in the process of developing a plan to recruit and retain bus drivers during a national shortage.

Fleming and Blackwelder have both played leading roles in the district's move toward letting parents choose their children's schools. The choice plan, which will start in fall 2003, will require a more complex transportation system with more buses and more drivers.