TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin showed up to an employee focus group session at Sickles High School on Wednesday only to be asked to leave.
The district’s goal for the session, one of eight this month, is for transportation employees to express concerns in a safe space. The meetings are closed to board members, the media and transportation supervisors.
Now, Griffin is planning to host her own town hall meetings throughout the county for school bus drivers and anyone else in the community to give input and express concerns about the district’s transportation department.
“I think the community needs to be involved in this process,” said Griffin, who wants to bring her fellow board members on as facilitators at five public meetings.
The focus groups, hosted by the district’s Business Process Improvement team, were prompted by a memorandum written by four transportation training specialists last month, citing concerns about how the department is being run, including the handling of students with special needs.
The first was Monday and the next is today at 10 a.m. at the district’s Manhattan Center.
The process team is expected to put a report together with details from the meetings, but Griffin said she wants the chance to hear from employees in person.
“I drove all the way over to the meeting, only to be escorted out very quickly,” Griffin said. “The board never received any sort of communication that they did not want us there.”
The school district is investigating some of the concerns brought up in the memo, including an incident involving a medically fragile child.
Griffin is critical of conducting the investigation internally and says hiring an outside group to investigate would be more appropriate.
The issues alleged in the memo were enough to prompt Griffin to announce that she will be running for re-election this year. She previously said she would not seek a third term in her District 6 seat.
Not all board members agree with Griffin. Candy Olson, who represents District 2 on the board, says showing up to attend the focus group meeting was not appropriate.
“Focus groups are designed with a very specific purpose – to get a lot of information from a lot of different people, some of whom will never speak up except in a small setting where they’ll feel very safe,” Olson said. “To me, this is not productive.”
But District 4 member Stacy White said he has no problem with a board member attending the meetings. Still, White said, the board should designate a representative to avoid the risk of violating Florida’s Sunshine Law if two or more members show up, he said.
“I have no issue with April attending, I just want to make sure no other board members have an interest,” White said. “We’re meeting in a couple of weeks and I would be willing to entertain that kind of a discussion.”
The focus groups are not subject to Florida public records laws unless the process team makes recommendations to the school board, according to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
“If it is strictly fact-finding, the Sunshine Law doesn’t apply,” Petersen said.
School bus driver Kelmie Bigelow, who was part of the first focus group on Monday, said Griffin’s presence would not have kept from giving input If it was up to her, she would invite board members to sit in on a session.
“I want her to be there,” Bigelow said.