1. The Education Gradebook

They broke the rules, but some say Hillsborough school workers' firings were political

Published Jul. 22, 2012

TAMPA — There are several variations on the George Olmo story.

One has the school maintenance worker soliciting signatures at Leto High School to help re-elect outspoken Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes.

Another has Olmo giving a couple of Valdes petitions to a cafeteria worker who asked for them.

Regardless of which one you believe, Olmo, 54, was fired in April, accused of violating a policy against campaigning at work.

And in this most contentious season, he's crying politics.

"I was talking about Miss Valdes," he said. "You could have terminated me if you found that I had a knife on me, or I had drugs on me, or if I was a child molester, fine. But for handing out petitions?

Olmo's story is well-known among opposition candidates in a campaign season focused largely on the management record of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

Supporters — including three board members up for re-election — credit Elia for innovation and academic rigor that have boosted the district's profile and prepared more students for college and careers.

Critics call her heavy-handed and say there is a climate of fear among the school system's 29,000 employees. Valdes described "a tone of leading by intimidation" in her last evaluation of Elia, which carried the lowest score among the seven-member board.

If you ask Olmo's attorney, his treatment smacks of political motivation and intimidation.

"This really is a case of connect the dots — where each dot either supports the superintendent or not," said Adam Levine, an adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law.

"And the not quite so straight line created by the superintendent's supporters swerves quite a bit past such requirements as progressive discipline to end unceremoniously in George's termination."

Not so, said school district attorney Thomas Gonzalez. "No, it's not politically motivated, and nobody else has ever been treated differently," he said. "To my knowledge, everyone who has ever violated the law has been terminated."

Olmo's case is headed for a re-hearing at the School Board, Levine said, as Valdes defends her seat against author Eddy Calcines.

Olmo is not the only employee to lose a job recently over allegations of workplace campaigning. "Captain Carl" Kosierowski, a bus driver running to unseat pro-Elia board member Carol Kurdell, was fired last week for giving out campaign bookmarks at a bus depot in April.

Kosierowski said he didn't know he was breaking a rule. Given the nature of his infraction, he believes it should have been handled with a warning.

Olmo, similarly, said he made an honest mistake.

Kurdell, however, said both should have known better. "I don't think it's politics," she said.

"We have procedures and rules that we live by in the district and if the breaking of these rules is reported, then the administration has the responsibility to investigate."

The district reminds workers of the rules every election cycle, she said. Olmo had 22 years on the job. Kosierowski had seven. Both are former members of the support workers' union, and Olmo was a union officer.

"By the time we get to the point of a firing, it's real clear what has happened and I think that's what we saw," Kurdell said.

Olmo lives in Town 'N Country with his wife, a school maintenance clerk; and one of their eight grandchildren. He describes himself as a problem-solver for the district, a go-to guy in the maintenance department.

He loves politics. Raised in the Bronx, he's not without bluster.

"Mrs. Elia wants me out because I'm nobody, ma'am, but I have a big mouth," he said.

"People know me. They know that if you want to know the truth and the truth's going to hurt, I'm sorry, I'm going to tell you that blouse don't look good on you. If you ask."

His employment record shows top ratings on his evaluations and minimal trouble, except for the time in 2002 when he took a district van to a cousin's house and replaced two vertical blinds.

The records also suggest Olmo knew he was on thin ice with the petitions. He advised workers to sign them at home or on a break. He said he'd retrieve the papers at their homes.

Still, he says what he did in January is not much different from other political acts that happen at school settings — such as administrators who come to union parties and remind workers to vote in union elections.

Levine questions whether giving someone a petition, six months before the race began, even fits the legal definition of campaigning.

There are complaints about the district's choice of Spanish-English interpreters when investigators came to Leto, as one had a prior disagreement with Olmo.

There's a separate allegation that Olmo used a district van for a personal errand. Olmo said he took a detour to avoid traffic and stopped for a short conversation.

Officials also cited him for insubordination, saying he called the Leto principal after being told to stay away from the school due to the investigation.

As with Kosierowski, who doesn't have a lawyer, Levine questions the severity of Olmo's treatment.

If a child's well-being is at stake, he said, "You shoot first and ask questions later." But in Olmo's case, he said, there should have been progressive discipline.

But Gonzalez said progressive discipline make no sense in such a case, as campaign cycles are short-lived. "The next time it happened, we would be pretty far down the road," he said.

If the district wanted to send a strong message, it succeeded.

Michael Weston, a high school teacher and candidate in the same race as Kosierowski, has consulted with attorneys to avoid a similar misstep.

"I try to stay well clear of the district's rules," he said. "I believe some may violate the First Amendment, but I don't need the distraction of a civil rights battle."

These days Olmo is job-hunting, a requirement for his unemployment benefits.

He's also building campaign signs for some of the opposition candidates — and, of course, for Susan Valdes.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356.