Log in Subscribe

School board meeting dominated by bus driver disciplinary matters


The March 22 meeting of the Manatee County School Board was heavily occupied with bus driver discipline, especially the sad case of Stephanie Waiters, a drivers' supervisor who got into trouble on February 11, 2009, for throwing a group of unruly Palmetto High School students off their morning school bus and telling them that they might never ride a school bus again.

The problem was that only a school principal or assistant principal can prevent students from riding school buses. All the drivers or their supervisors are supposed to do is refer misbehaving students to the appropriate school administrator. In this case, that would have been Palmetto High School assistant principal Carl Auckerman.

One mitigating circumstance: Waiters had told her supervisor about the problems substitute driver Jose Rodriguez was having on that route before she rode with Rodriguez on Feb 11. Her supervisor, Terry Palmer, was on his way to a meeting in Talahassee at the time, and told her to handle the situation on her own.

(You can download and read details of the allegations against Waiters here.)

A large monkey wrench thrown into the proceeding was school board attorney John Bowen telling the board that they could not take public comments about the Waiters case because members of the public who wanted to speak in her behalf would not be under oath, nor would there be a chance to cross-examine or rebut them.

This produced a fair amount of consternation among school board members. Board member Robert Gause pointed out that people who had signed up to speak were "not giving evidence, but were talking of her character."

Sorry, said Bowen, "that's still evidence, subject to being submitted under oath with rebuttal and cross-examination."

Member Barbara Harvey said, "I don't feel comfortable doing this without public comments. I've been here for a thousand years and never heard this before."

Bowen said the reason for this rule was to protect employees' rights; that sure, maybe everyone speaking out on this case was on the employee's side, but what about next time, when things were swinging in the other direction? What about the precedent they would have set? And besides, Bowen said, listening to public testimony in this case before making a decision "breaks your oath of office."

So attorney Erin G. Jackson, speaking for the school district, told the board how Waiters failed to use good judgement or follow policy, how she endangered the children's lives by her actions, and how she had changed her story multiple times during the investigation and hearing, to the point where she no longer had any credibility with administrative law judge Lawrence P. Stevenson of the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Defense attorney Adam Tebrugge told the board Waiters hadn't been questioned about the events of February 11 until March 11, and that her memory was imperfect. Tebrugge also pointed out that bus number 537 on route number 5 had a long history of discipline problems and that Waiters managed to establish control, which is what she was supposed to do. "What Ms. Waiters did was in line with the transportation manual," Tebrugge said, and received approving murmurs from the nearly standing-room-only audience.

Tebrugge pointed out that no students were actually suspended from the bus that morning by Waiters or anyone else, and that the bus ended up arriving at Palmetto High School only 12 minutes after its scheduled arrival time. And as Tebrugge also pointed out, to appreciative murmurs from the crowd, "No student has been identified as suffering consequences" from the event.

Not only that, said Tebrugge, it hadn't been long since Waiters was commended and given a plaque for saving a student's life in the course of her job, and that the only reprimand she had ever received, back when she was a driver and not a supervisor, was for not disciplining her passengers severely enough.

The board discussed what they'd just heard and what they'd read earlier about this case. Barbara Harvey, who lives about one-half mile from where the incident took place, said, "I have reported that bus stop," and that there were typically 25 to 30 kids there with no adult supervision.

Harvey also said, "I don't agree with those children misbehaving. If I'd been there I'd have killed half of them."

The crowd responded with a soft but audible, "Amen!"

Board member Walter Miller said, "I'll be honest, Ms. Waiters, that you were in a difficult situation and tried to use common sense... The problem was your consistency about your own testimony."

In the end, Waiters went down due to inconsistent testimony about when she gave referral slips to the assistant prinncipal and whether she had good reason to believe she was in danger when she called sheriff's deputies for assistance.

Superintendent Tim McGonegal said "Following rules is priority" and that this level of disciplinary action is "not something we take lightly."

The vote came at 7:38 p.m., and only Barbara Harvey voted to allow Stephanie Waiters to keep her job. However, Walter Miller noted that "Ms. Waiters is eligible for rehire -- just not in transport.

Once the decision to fire Waiters was made, and public comments were meaningless, the public was allowed to speak. People who spoke in favor of Waiters ranged from fellow school district employees to people in her church. They were white and black, old and young, with the best performance given by former school board member Ruby Byrd, who said she was "disgusted," and that this was "a dark day for education in Manatee County.

Even Jose Rodriguez, the substitute bus driver (who also got fired) told the board they were wrong to fire Waiters. "Please support our bus drivers," he said. "We get no support. I did what I thought was right and for that I lost my job."

In the final moments of the meeting, before the last gavel fell, board member Robert Gause quietly asked superintendent McGonegal to find an appropriate position for Waiters. Other board members nodded, as did the superintendent.

What about a bus driver who leers at girl students?
This was the evening's other bus driver problem. Substitute bus driver Jerome Heaven has been accused of leering at female students, formally called "inappropriate interaction." But that's not all. Supervisors said that when they reassigned him from driving buses to washing them, he failed to do what he was told, and was "grossly insubordinate" multiple times.

Heaven said the leering allegations were "false, not true, and out of my character. I have done nothing wrong to warrant termination." He also said he was hired to drive buses, not to wash them, and that he was under a doctor's care and couldn't wash buses in the sun.

If anyone really thought he was leering at students, Heaven said, they should check video from the bus, and claimed, "all the children on my bus love me."

Heaven also said, "I consider this a modern-day lynching."

Despite the heated words, Heaven's fate was not decided during this meeting. The only motion on the table was to suspend him without pay while allegations against him were investigated. McGonegal said this was normal procedure, and that there was no reason not to follow it in Mr. Heaven's case. The motion carried unanimously.

The rest of the meeting: mostly consent items
You can read the rest of the board's March 22 agenda here. All items besides the two sticky personnel matters sailed through in a chorus of "Ayes."


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.