Hillsborough school district rebuts 'incendiary' lawsuit by its fired personnel chief

Stephanie Woodford rose through the ranks of the Hillsborough County School District, then was fired as Chief of Human Resources on April 28. She now works for the Pinellas County School District and has a pending lawsuit against the Hillsborough district that alleges numerous acts of corruption. [Times files]
Stephanie Woodford rose through the ranks of the Hillsborough County School District, then was fired as Chief of Human Resources on April 28. She now works for the Pinellas County School District and has a pending lawsuit against the Hillsborough district that alleges numerous acts of corruption. [Times files]
Published Feb. 8, 2018

TAMPA — A lawsuit filed by the former human resources chief of the Hillsborough County Public Schools is riddled with mistakes, school officials allege in a motion that challenges its credibility.

The motion to strike, filed Wednesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, says Stephanie Woodford confused timelines and misstated key facts in an "incendiary story of corruption and cover-up" that seeks to explain Woodford's firing from one of the district's top jobs in April.

The suit, which Woodford filed in October, is not about wrongful termination, but defamation.

As one of Superintendent Jeff Eakins' cabinet members, Woodford could have been fired without cause. But when questioned by the Tampa Bay Times, chief of staff Alberto Vazquez said Woodford had violated a district policy against making false or derogatory statements about coworkers.

Woodford, in what is also a whistleblower action, said the real reason for her departure had to do with her refusal to go along with favors that district staff were doing for board members and their friends — chiefly Susan Valdes and district employee Susan Migueltorena. The suit describes Migueltorena as Valdes' "personal friend and campaign manager."

Woodford is alleging that, because of pressure from Valdes, Migueltorena was given a job for which she was not qualified. Later, Woodford alleges, when teacher Laurie Rodriguez complained about this to the state, Vazquez wanted her to pretend there had been a district-level investigation when none had taken place.

The district says it has proof that the reality is very different.

First, the district says, Woodford's lawsuit claims Migueltorena landed an instructional job in 2016 when in reality, the job had nothing to do with classroom teaching. It was listed as "instructional" for payroll purposes. The job actually was recruiting adult students for a technical college.

Migueltorena had already been doing this work part-time, and the district upgraded her job from a part-time position. Eventually, the position was moved back to part-time. That happened, the district says, when Woodford and Vazquez realized there was no such recruitment position on the books that would have allowed Migueltorena to get full-time pay and benefits.

Second, the district's motion points out that teacher Rodriguez filed two separate complaints to state agencies in late 2016 and early 2017 and says Woodford confused the two, perhaps to construct a false narrative.

The first complaint, filed in September 2016 with the Commission on Ethics, concerned an unpaid child care bill at Leto High School for Valdes' grandchild. The allegation was that Valdes misused her elected position to obtain a benefit for a family member.

The second complaint, filed in February 2017 with the Inspector General of the Department of Education, mentioned the child care matter and other issues, including Migueltorena's promotion.

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Woodford's lawsuit says "an ethics complaint was filed with the State of Florida Department of Education."

In confusing the two events, the district's motion says, Woodford was able to deny any investigation had taken place — referring perhaps to the first complaint about the child care matter — when the records show "she was integrally involved" in the second matter.

In fact, the motion goes on to say, "the investigation of the Migueltorena issue was actually commenced by Woodford herself, beginning in December, 2016, three months before the Rodriguez Florida Department of Education complaint, in response to a threatened grievance by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association."

The union did not want to see benefits paid out to someone who was not entitled to them.

The motion also pokes holes in Woodford's allegation that Vazquez and Cindy Stuart, then the School Board chairwoman, interfered with board member Lynn Gray's evaluation of Superintendent Jeff Eakins by pressuring her to revise it, and retaliated against Woodford after she objected. Gray was trying to make the point that Eakins sometimes lets board members interfere in hiring decisions.

The lawsuit says board members are not supposed to see each other's evaluations until they are all released to the public. The district disagrees, saying the draft documents are a matter of public record. Multiple staff members had seen Gray's draft. "Its contents were not a secret." And ultimately, the district says, the revisions Gray made were very minor.

The lawsuit, attorneys Deborah Oliver and Chelsea Harrison wrote, was "replete with specious he-said, she-said allegations, which in no way bear on the legal merits of the claims and serve no purpose other than to publicly embarrass non-party School Board officials and staff."

One particularly salacious passage says Valdes warned Woodford not to challenge her because she had the three p's, "That's power, position and p----, and I've got all three. So don't f--- with me."

Months after the suit was filed, Vazquez left the district for a comparable job in the Hartford, Conn., school system.

Woodford now works for the Pinellas County School District as assistant director of school leadership.

A hearing on a motion to dismiss the Hillsborough lawsuit is scheduled at 10 a.m. on March 12.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.