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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Employees complained, and put their names on it

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People complain about stuff at their jobs all the time, but most of the time that's as far as it goes. In today's corporate world, putting your name on a complaint can be a career-killing move.

So, when four training specialists in the transportation department of the Hillsborough County School District signed their names to a memo detailing what they called "significant problems" in leadership - in other words, their bosses - well, this was no ordinary airing of gripes.

That memo, prepared by four employees with service ranging from four years to 38, was recently presented to the school board. It raised safety concerns, low morale, poor training and follow-up.

Board members are expected to address those concerns today at their meeting. It could be a lively session. In some ways, it already has been.

The concerns were enough to get board member April Griffin to reverse her decision not to run for re-election in November. That's a big story, but if the problems pointed out in the memo are even close to true, that's a bigger deal.

"When I said I wasn't running again, I absolutely meant it," Griffin said. "But then the transportation people came to me with their issues. I told them they had to put their names on it, which they were willing to do."

Let's stop here for a moment.

Transportation policy came under withering scrutiny in 2012 after Isabella Herrera, a second-grader with special needs, died after she was improperly positioned in her wheelchair while riding a bus home from school. Neither the driver nor the aide called 911 after finding Isabella slumped in her chair, cutting off oxygen.

That was the policy at the time, but it was quickly changed.

The problems haven't stopped, though. In August 2013, a snafu involving how a kindergarten student in Plant City got off the bus led to a nearly hour-long search before the child was found safe. Because of these and other issues, the school district has hired a consultant to look at the transportation department.

That's a good step. Another good one is to seriously dissect the charges brought by transportation employees Corie Holmes, Juanita Juarez, Twyla Tillman and John Saffold.

"If you have enough of concern that you're willing to put your name on it, that's something we have to take seriously," school board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell said. "Usually, you can't do anything with anonymous complaints because you don't know where to go, so I was pleased that they put their names on it."

Anyone trying to work through a large bureaucracy like the county school district understands frustration. There are rules for everything, but often not the support.

This memo charges, for instance, that drivers are evaluated on bus cleanliness, including whether it has been washed. That's hard to do when the bus wash has been broken for two years.

The employees say there is a lot of money put into training, but there are no checks later to see if the drivers are doing what they were taught.

When morale lags and leadership is questioned, it can put students at risk. The only answer is to get to the bottom of these charges, and shake things up if need be.

This isn't about turf protection, it's about child protection. And at least some people felt strongly enough about that to sign their name to make sure the board takes it seriously.

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