TAMPA — Some Hillsborough County School Board members are balking at an email from Superintendent MaryEllen Elia asking them to hold off on giving input to a consultant looking at the district’s transportation department.
Elia sent the email to school board members on Thursday, saying their input could affect consultant Tom Platt’s ability to conduct an independent review. She noted that at least one board member had reached out to Platt to give guidance about which employees he should speak with.
Platt, of the Maryland-based School Bus Consultants LLC, received a letter from Elia the same day, urging him not to take instructions, directives or demands from district employees or school board members.
“The whole purpose is to have him gather the information he needs and report that to the board,” Elia said Wednesday. “We’re in the middle of that process. This is a company that does evaluations of transportation all over the country. He shouldn’t be directed on who to talk to. I’m not directing him and my staff isn’t.”
Elia said board members will get their chance to give input to Platt and ask him questions before he completes his report.
The directive to stay away from Platt until instructed otherwise did not sit well with some board members. April Griffin, who often has sparred with Elia, said she might not have voted to hire the consultant had she known she wouldn’t be able to have an open dialogue with him throughout the process.
In a response to Elia’s email, Griffin pointed to a recording of a discussion with Platt during a January board workshop about whether the board could give input during the review process.
“Certainly, board members can talk to you about their concerns as you move forward and get a clarification?” board chairwoman Carol Kurdell asked during the meeting.
“Of course,’’ Platt replied.
In February, the board voted 6-1, with member Stacy White opposed, to spend $38,500 to hire the consulting company to help develop a plan for replacing school buses and to conduct a review of the transportation department.
Griffin said she has told Elia to ask Platt to speak with four transportation training consultants who wrote a memorandum citing concerns with how the department is run, including the handling of special-needs students.
“I was getting calls from all over transportation saying they were really sheltering the consultant,” Griffin said. “This consultant does not need to be led around by the nose. They need to get the unfiltered and unvarnished truth.”
Separate from Platt’s review, the school district is investigating some of the concerns brought up in the employees’ memo, including an incident involving a medically fragile child. Transportation employees are encouraged to attend focus group sessions this month.
Board member Cindy Stuart, who led the charge to hire a consultant outside of the school district to help make plans to buy new buses, said she was confused by the superintendent’s message last week.
“If the consultant or the superintendent did not want board members having a conversation with the consultant, that should have been made crystal clear at the workshop,” Stuart said. “It’s obvious we thought we could have an open dialogue with the consultant. To be told we shouldn’t be doing that is confusing. It doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Elia said Platt will provide the board members with a plan for how they can communicate with him as soon as Monday. The board is expected to have a discussion about transportation at its meeting Tuesday.
“We want this to be an appropriate process followed by an outside consultant who is an expert in his field,” Elia said. “There’s no reason to imagine we’re trying to do anything other than allow that process to work.”