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Consultant says Tampa school owes $29,400

She now believes it was a big mistake, but she trusted the Hillsborough County School District.

Who wouldn't, asks Thomasena Holloway. Thousands of parents take a bigger leap of faith daily when they hand their children over to teachers.

With only a verbal agreement of pay, Holloway said she went to work as a consultant for Blake High School principal Jacqueline Haynes.

Holloway, commuting from her South Carolina home, became a school fixture. She said she put in 735 hours from December through August. She wrote a slick brochure. Secured corporate sponsors. Called parents. Recruited students. Took them on field trips twice.

"I did a lot of work," she said, "an awful lot of work."

Now, the former IBM manager said the school system, a $2.3-billion bureaucracy, owes her $29,400 for assembling a public relations program for students enrolled at Blake.

School attorney Tom Gonzalez doesn't see it that way. He said Holloway was a volunteer _ "kind of like the Junior League" _ who misunderstood her role.

If so, the lines were fuzzy. The school paid Holloway $3,200 for time and expenses this summer, Gonzalez confirmed.

Holloway wrote School Board chairman Glenn Barrington last month, asking for help getting the rest of the money.

"There's nothing I can say about it," Barrington told the St. Petersburg Times. "We gave it to our attorneys to sort out."

Haynes did not return phone calls for comment.

Gonzalez said the dispute between Holloway and Haynes is under investigation.

No one seems to question Holloway's work, only whether she was supposed to get paid.

Her take?

"Why would I be coming from the Carolinas, to volunteer?" she asked.

A handshake agreement

Holloway lives in Fort Mill, S.C., and cares for an ailing mother there.

She feels betrayed. Her family is in financial straits.

"I'm so mad, I don't know what to do," she said.

The ordeal began in December, when Holloway's engineer husband, Albert, was hired as a math teacher at Blake. He had been laid off from a Charlotte, N.C., Bank of America in the economic downturn following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his wife said.

She, too, had been out of work for about a year after injuring herself on the job at IBM.

Like many struggling couples, the Holloways had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection so they could reorganize debts. It was dismissed.

Holloway said she struck up a conversation with the principal, who learned of her experience in program development and marketing.

She said the two agreed Holloway would develop the Public Relations Academy, to begin in the fall at Blake, a magnet school near downtown.

The school had been considering such a program for a couple of years.

In return for her work, Holloway said the principal agreed to pay her $40 an hour, a typical wage for a consultant.

Gonzalez said Haynes denies there was an agreement.

Holloway said it was a handshake agreement; nothing was put in writing.

"I felt with it being the school system, I wouldn't have a problem," said Holloway, 52.

If the deal existed, it was marred from the beginning.

Gonzalez said Holloway was never officially hired as an employee, consultant or contractor.

Only the School Board has hiring authority, he said.

"As a matter of law, a principal can't employ anybody," Gonzalez said.

He said the principal offered Holloway a teaching job at one time, but she declined. Holloway said she told the principal her family could not survive with two people making a teacher's salary.

$29,400 worth of work

Coming from the business world, Holloway said she was unfamiliar with school procedures. She said she took Haynes at her word, trusted she was seeking funding and went about building the public relations program.

Holloway said she made at least seven trips to Tampa and met with numerous school officials.

In February, March and April, she said she worked more than 30 hours a week.

Holloway called parents and pulled students out of their classrooms to discuss the program. She took 55 students on a field trip to the University of South Florida and another five students to Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach _ in a car rented by the school district.

Holloway said she wrote a federal grant to get program funding. She solicited and received corporate commitments or support from Publix Super Markets Inc.; Keenan, Hopkins, Schmidt & Stowell Contractors; and Syniverse Technologies.

One company agreed to donate five laptop computers; another wanted to help renovate a classroom to look like an office; and a third hoped to buy student uniforms.

She wrote a slick two-color brochure promoting the academy, Holloway said, and the school district printed more than 1,000 copies with Haynes' approval. Holloway estimates it cost $15,000 to print.

"I just knew I was doing the right thing, even though I wasn't getting paid," Holloway said. "I thought, sooner or later, they're going to have to pay me."

All the while, Holloway waited for her money. She eventually received $2,000 from the National Career Academy Coalition in Washington, which was helping with the program. And she received the $3,200 from the school.

She has requested from everyone, up to the superintendent, the remaining $29,400.

With her own bills mounting, she called the U.S. Labor Department, the state attorney general and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to complain.

Holloway said the whole matter has caused a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for her family, leaving her feeling duped by the school district.

"I worked for this time," Holloway said. "We have outstanding bills. We can't . . . wait another minute."

Launch date postponed

Several parents share Holloway's frustration.

"It's a true-to-life mess," said Carole Shelton-Toney, whose 15-year-old son, Nickolas, hoped to participate in the public relations program. "They seem very, very disorganized."

Shelton-Toney was sold on the program after reading Holloway's brochure.

Holloway, who has severed ties with the school, said she heard the academy launch has been postponed until the second semester in January, but no one seems to know for sure.

Shelton-Toney and other parents feel caught in the middle and want to know why the program did not begin last month as promised. More than 100 ninth-graders and 10th-graders, many from inner-city neighborhoods, were supposed to participate.

"We're just sitting and waiting," she said. "It wouldn't have been so bad if the school would have called and said, "There's a problem.'

"We never heard anything."

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.

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