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Schools director abruptly resigns

The task force to investigate his claims of rampant waste is ''nothing short of a complete joke,'' he says.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2002

TAMPA -- A Hillsborough school district employee who claims millions of tax dollars have been mismanaged by the district abruptly resigned Wednesday, ending a 33-year career in the school system.

Doug Erwin said his decision came two days after district officials transferred him from a top administrative job to a task force formed to investigate his claims that $100-million has been wasted, much of it on shoddy construction and renovation projects.

The task force is "nothing short of a complete joke," said Erwin, the district's former director of operations.

He said the stress of his job and Monday's transfer caused his blood pressure to rise to a dangerous level.

"I can no longer jeopardize my health and the happiness of my family," Erwin said. "I stand by everything I've said. I'm not running from anyone or anything."

His allegations were the topic of a School Board workshop last week, during which Erwin handed the board 1,400 pages of maintenance requests, personnel records and photographs to back up his claims.

The tense meeting, during which Erwin's lawyer was present, was marked by pointed questions directed at Erwin, who fears he is being made a scapegoat for problems he said his supervisors ignored.

His claims have led to internal investigations that showed $560,000 might have been misappropriated in the grounds department. A separate investigation of the maintenance department accused two employees of using district money and equipment for their own benefit.

The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating. Erwin requested a grand jury review, but State Attorney Mark Ober told school officials that he was leaving the investigation to state authorities.

Erwin's subsequent claim that as much as $100-million has been wasted was met with skepticism and anger by school officials. At the meeting last week, administrators and School Board members grilled Erwin on improper spending in the grounds and maintenance departments he supervised, and on new construction projects.

They also asked him about unsafe portable classrooms. Erwin said Durant and Leto high schools were good examples of shoddy construction because their roofs and air-conditioning systems frequently need repair.

Erwin said he had been taking blood pressure medication but had stopped. He was so distraught after the meeting last week that he could feel his blood pressure rise.

On Monday, when Superintendent Earl Lennard reassigned him to the task force, Erwin said, he suffered a severe headache and was having vision problems. He said his doctor told him his blood pressure was high.

He called in sick Tuesday and asked to take vacation for the rest of the week, said School Board spokesman Mark Hart. On Wednesday, he resigned.

In his opinion, the district should have hired an outside consultant to investigate his claims, instead of placing him and several volunteers on a task force.

Erwin, 56, was paid $98,500 a year and will receive a pension of about $45,000 annually, Hart said.

Erwin said he plans to visit family and go fishing. He described the last two years as "a nightmare" and said he may continue to investigate the district's spending.

District officials said the task force will continue, and that 18 volunteers from the business community have joined.

Hart, the district spokesman, said school officials had hoped Erwin would have played a role in the investigation.

"It's apparent to us that Mr. Erwin was unwilling to accept his reassignment," Hart said. "We had hoped that Mr. Erwin would be devoting his energies full time to substantiating his claims."

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