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State ethics commission investigates Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes in response to a teacher's complaint

Anonymous letters claim Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes received free child care.
Published Dec. 29, 2016

TAMPA — The state's ethics agency is investigating an allegation that Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes arranged free child care for her grandchild at a center based at Leto High School.

Laurie Rodriguez, an adult education teacher at Erwin Technical College, filed the complaint with the state Commission on Ethics. She did so after anonymous letters described special favors for the board member at Leto Little School, a fee-based center that is operated under the district's career and technical education department.

Rodriguez is married to Bill Person, a retired school district administrator who ran against Valdes in this year's School Board race. He received one of the anonymous letters about Valdes. Person lost by 267 votes and is now a candidate for a countywide seat in 2018.

Rodriguez contends that if Valdes' grandson was given free child care services, that act constitutes "a misuse of public position."

Valdes, a Leto graduate who has served on the School Board since 2004, issued this statement through her attorney, Cheryl Forchilli:

"We are pleased the Commission has begun their investigation as we fully expect its conclusion to clear Ms. Valdes of any wrongdoing so she can continue working on behalf of Hillsborough County students without this unnecessary distraction.

"To be very clear about the process, the Commission is following its standard procedure, and the investigation does not indicate any finding that this politically motivated complaint, filed by the wife of Ms. Valdes's opponent in the recent election, has merit."

The Ethics Commission does not comment about pending complaints. They become a matter of public record once the commission makes its finding and enters its order, said spokeswoman Carrie Stillman.

But Rodriguez provided the Times with copies of her correspondence with the agency. One letter, dated Oct. 4, said the complaint "has been found sufficient for investigation" and forwarded to the commission's investigative section.

Separate documents, which the school district provided to the Times after a public records request, suggest district officials tried to find another way to pay the child's tuition.

On Oct. 9, 2015, Sandra Cavadias, an early childhood education instructor who assists with Leto Little, told chief of schools Larry Sykes in an email, "it is my understanding that Mrs. Susan Valdes has been in contact with you about her grandson's tuition at our school."

At the time, the balance was $805, including late fees. "The information we are hearing is that it is being taken care of," Cavadias wrote. "We would appreciate some information about how his tuition is being taken care of. If there is a program available for low income families I know we have other families that would also qualify for this kind of program."

A response came that day from Warren Brooks, the head of career and technical education.

"This is one of the families that we are working with to secure the grant funding," Brooks wrote. "We expected to have this in place at the beginning of the year but are working to overcome several hurdles. Thanks for your patience as we try to find creative ways to help our employees out."

It is not clear what Brooks meant by employees. Neither he nor Cavadias could be reached to elaborate or provide updated information, as all school offices are closed.

Rodriguez alleges other parents at the preschool were concerned about what they considered preferential treatment for a School Board member. Rodriguez says they were told that "downtown knows and won't do anything."

Sykes, who has since changed jobs with the district, said his understanding was that the child's father, who is Valdes' son, needed help paying the day care bill. A program exists in which individuals or organizations can sponsor parents who need assistance, he said. But "something fell through and the son did not complete the information."

He said he turned the matter over to Brooks. He did not know if the bill was ever paid.

"As far as telling anybody what to do, or advising anybody, she had nothing to do with it," he said.

But Sykes said he was not troubled by the possibility that Valdes would get involved at Leto. "Sometimes people just go to family members," he said. It would make sense for the son to turn to her "because she is well known. Leto is almost like her home."

This is not the first time Rodriguez and Person have gone up against Brooks and the administration. Person said he decided to run for office after Rodriguez and other teachers at Erwin were told their jobs were being eliminated in 2015, and they were to be replaced by part-time instructors.

Rodriguez filed a grievance about the job cuts. The School Board overturned the district's action by a 4-3 vote with Valdes casting one of the dissenting votes.

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

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