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Decision on firing bus driver delayed

The administration says she should be let go for a November traffic incident. The board will hold a hearing April 19 to hear both sides.

Published April 6, 2005

LAND O'LAKES - About three dozen red-shirted union members pounded the pavement in front of Pasco County School Board offices Tuesday to protest superintendent Heather Fiorentino's recommendation to fire a bus driver.

"Shame on you, Heather," one sign said.

"Do the right thing, Heather!" another proclaimed.

The personal pleas to the district's recently elected top chief framed the first major public flap between the United School Employees of Pasco teachers union and its new superintendent.

"I believe that with John Long as superintendent, it wouldn't have gone this far," said Christal Ferrie, the 33-year-old bus driver at the center of the tangle.

Fiorentino was elected in November to replace Long, who retired. His eight-year tenure as superintendent was characterized largely by his ability to smooth out union disagreements before they rose to the board level.

Despite the criticism and comparisons to her predecessor, Fiorentino on Tuesday maintained that union relations are not the issue.

"I would not have made my recommendation had I not believed I was doing the right thing for the students of this county," Fiorentino said.

Ferrie, a bus driver since 1999, was cited by the Florida Highway Patrol on Nov. 16, 2004, for a careless sideswipe after her bus collided with a car on Moog Road, east of U.S. 19. The case was dismissed by the courts Feb. 3 for lack of eyewitness testimony.

School officials maintain that crash, coupled with two other incidents in the three weeks prior, show Ferrie is unfit to drive a bus:

A citizen told transportation director Mike Park that on Oct. 29, Ferrie cut off a vehicle at the intersection of River Gulf Drive and Washington Street. And transportation supervisor Jack Greene says that on Nov. 3 he saw Ferrie drive her bus through a red light at Ridge Road and Galen Wilson Boulevard

"Our position is now that she just should not be behind the wheel of a bus," said employee relations director Terry Rhum.

That Ferrie's contested case has risen to the School Board stands in contrast to recent history: The last board-level employee termination appeal was held in 1998, Rhum said.

"It's my understanding that we've had a breakdown in communication with USEP," saidSchool Board member Jean Larkin Weightman. The Ferrie matter illustrates a "spirit of cooperation that has faded," Weightman said.

School Board members took the unusual step of reconsidering their March 15 vote to put Ferrie on unpaid leave. Fiorentino last month recommended Ferrie's pay be suspended until the board could vote on the bus driver's termination.

But, hearing the passionate appeals of union president Lynne Webb on Tuesday, board members delayed the termination and Ferrie's hearing until April 19. They also awarded her back pay for the wages lost between March 16 and Tuesday, making her suspension without pay effective this week.

Ferrie and her defenders, meanwhile, say the infraction does not rise to the level of termination.

Additionally, Webb maintains the district has "stonewalled" and delayed the union's requests for public information needed to help the union defend Ferrie's case, a situation she says represents a "marked departure" from past practices and violates the terms of the union's contract.

Monday morning, the union received some of the documents it requested more than two weeks after requesting them on March 18, the day before school offices closed for spring break week. The papers they requested would have detailed what happened to bus drivers in similar situations going back to 1998.

Rhum wrote USEP on March 31, calling the requests "overly broad." In the end, Rhum said Tuesday, employees worked a total of 26 overtime hours over the weekend to give Webb what they did.

Webb plopped on the podium before the board members the 5-inch stack of papers that had been delivered to her office the day prior.

"I cannot tell you how much I regret that we have to conduct business this way," Webb said.

Ferrie, a single mother of three, received satisfactory reviews from 2000 to 2003, though her employee records indicate the board suspended her without pay for three days in 2000. Though nothing in her file gave a reason for that suspension, Ferrie said Tuesday she was involved in three minor incidents in her first year on the road.

Still, Ferrie's supporters question whether the district isn't overreacting in light of a string of high-profile school bus accidents that left two Pinellas County students dead and eight Hernando County students injured.

Bus driver Ellie Frechette said it was one of the main reasons she was holding a sign in protest Tuesday: "Some of us feel that we're being punished for the other counties."

Rhum and Fiorentino say that charge is not substantiated.

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 01:07:18]

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