TAMPA — Tension between the Hillsborough County School Board and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia took center stage Tuesday at a five-hour meeting that dealt primarily with problems in the district’s transportation department.
School board members and Elia have been grappling with employee’s complaints about transportation supervisors and how the district handles students with special needs, as well as a shortage of bus drivers and the need for a plan to replace buses.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Elia and her staff delivered an update on several initiatives put into place to deal with the problems, but school board members continued to express frustration with the process. Some board members were unhappy that they were directed not to give input to a consultant while he is conducting his review.
“We need to stop. We need to take a step back,” board member April Griffin said. “We need to start it over and start it with an outside investigator.”
Tom Platt, of Maryland-based School Bus Consultants LLC, was hired earlier this year to help the district purchase new buses and conduct a review of the operation of the entire department. His final report will be presented to the board April 30.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Griffin accused Elia of insubordination for failing to respond to an email in which she asked how to proceed in light of being told not to talk to the consultant.
The board members will get their chance to talk to the consultant through scheduled phone interviews the week of March 31.
Separate from Platt’s review, the school district’s professional standards department is investigating some of the concerns brought up in a memo submitted to the board by four transportation training specialists. The memo detailed concerns, including an incident involving a medically fragile child.
Meanwhile, the district also is conducting an administrative review of complaints that relate more to facilities, such as bus wash stations that are out of order.
The issues brought up in the memo prompted Elia to call for the district’s Business Processes Improvement team to host a series of focus groups this month for transportation employees to air their concerns and give feedback.
When Griffin showed up to one of the sessions, she was asked not to participate. District officials said they didn’t want transportation supervisors, board members or the media to attend the meetings so employees would be comfortable speaking freely. A report is being compiled from the sessions and will be presented to the board.
“The focus groups, I have no confidence in,” Griffin said. “Employees, the ones that have spoken to me do not have confidence in the process. They’re still scared of retaliation.”
Member Susan Valdes said she doesn’t trust the validity of the internal investigation into the issues cited in the employee memo. She said she wouldn’t have voted to approve a contract with an outside consultant if she had known board members wouldn’t be able to talk freely with him.
Elia said the results of each of the initiatives to improve transportation will be compiled soon and the recommendations presented to the board.
“I want to underscore the purpose of this is clarity and openness,” Elia said.