"Again, I would like for you to publicly clarify that you were not calling the public and employee comment section "foolishness". I would hate to see these comments taken out of context and become an element of divisive language between the district and the community."
The Internet is not always kind to Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes.
This week is no exception.
A statement Valdes made, more than four hours into a Tuesday School Board meeting that happened against a soundtrack of teachers protesting the district’s latest pay offer, has some of teachers enraged.
The topic was this year’s school bus purchase, and whether the district was being fair to the area Bluebird distributor in light of a problem early in the school year, with wheels coming loose on some buses.
Chief Operating Office Chris Farkas delivered a detailed explanation of the steps his staff took to make sure the problem was being addressed and would not reoccur.
Along the way, the district delayed the bus purchase.
Valdes was describing a decision years ago to buy Bluebird buses, and how the district sought input from its drivers.
“When you ask employee input, and you get employee input,” she said, “and we’re trying to listen, but then you see what we wind up getting, as we were here two hours ago listening to a lot of foolishness.”
Tuesday’s meeting happened a day after the district offered 20,000 of its employees one-time bonuses that average out to $92 instead of yearly raises that, for some, would be $4,000. That development drew hundreds of angry teachers to a demonstration just outside the boardroom. Protesters blew horns, rang cowbells, chanted slogans including “Not my School Board” and invited passing motorists to honk their horns in support. Detailed discussions about graduation rates, campus arrests and the district’s finances were all but drowned out by the sounds of the demonstration.
But Valdes has a history with the teachers’ union, and it isn’t a good one.
The union endorsed her opponent, Bill Person, when Valdes ran for re-election in 2016, a race she narrowly won. Ever since then, the relationship has been frosty at best.
Earlier on Tuesday, rumors circulated that Valdes would try to antagonize the teachers during the meeting so they would over-react and get thrown out. The union advised its members to be careful, and obey the district’s civility policy. The meeting and demonstration happened without incident. Tampa police were on hand, but scene was peaceful if a bit noisy.
Then came the “foolishness” remark.
Union supporters flooded the Whistleblower Facebook site with angry comments about Valdes.
“Now you know how teachers feel every day with this ridiculous micromanaging from the area offices,” wrote Jonathon Bock of Randall Middle School.
“FOOLISHNESS?!?! No, Ma’am you are the fool,” wrote RJ Forsythe of Egypt Lake Elementary.
Some of the comments used language not suitable for children.
On Twitter, Sligh Middle Magnet School media specialist Joshua Newhouse told the Tampa Bay Times, “I hope your team considers speaking to Ms. Valdez to clarify her comment on whether we are foolish or generally associated with foolishness.”
Riverview High School English teacher Kaitlin Vaccarello took a more formal route.
In an email that was copied to Superintendent Jeff Eakins, the assistant English department head wrote:
“A troubling video of you has surfaced from last night’s meeting and I would like clarification on a statement that you made. In the video you said, ” …we are trying to listen but then you see what we wind up getting as we were here two hours ago listening to a lot of foolishness…”. As the video is a clip, I am would like for you to specify the intended subject that you classified as “foolishness”.
“Based on the context and the time frame of the clip, one could make the mistake and infer that you were calling employee and public comment “foolishness”. However, I am sure that an elected officially wouldn’t be “foolish” enough to refer to their constituents and employees in such a derogatory way while being recorded. It would also be “foolish” for the district to believe that their actions and statements are not felt by every employee and child in the community. It would be “foolish” for the district to believe that this type of rhetoric and behavior would help to quell employees and restore public trust in our organization. There are very few things as “foolish” as enraging a well-organized, eloquently articulated educated group of people by disregarding their basic needs through breaking promises and trust.
The Times reached out to Valdes for a response, via text and email.
So far, there has been none.