June 1, 2005 - A $275,000 settlement agreement April 25 closed a long chapter for the Marana Unified School District, whose attorneys have spent the past year and a half involved in litigation regarding a Thornydale Elementary School student who was allegedly abused by her bus driver in May 2003.
But larger questions regarding the district's management of its transportation department are raised in the large stacks of legal documents on file in Pima County Superior Court. The family of the girl filed a $1.2 million lawsuit Dec. 16, 2003, which saw constant action up until it was settled out of court last month.
A large portion of the family's case hinged on the district's alleged negligence in allowing Bob Thomas to single-handedly manage the district's entire transportation department on a part-time basis.
The sworn statements of several witnesses raised questions regarding whether the district had been poorly managing its transportation department and suggest that a lack of oversight allowed many problems to occur in the department with a $5 million budget and more than 180 employees.
The Marana Unified School District is one of the largest districts in the state, encompassing about 550 miles and employing more than 120 bus drivers whose routes take them more than 12,000 miles a day.
Thomas, the district's maintenance director, was offered a $5,000 stipend, on top of his regular salary, by then Superintendent Wade McLean to double as director of both departments.
According to a March 25 deposition, McLean said he recommended the district pay Thomas to take on the job even though Thomas had never been director of transportation in a school district before. McLean testified he was aware Thomas would be the only employee serving as director of two departments and admitted that he did not instruct Thomas to acquire any training on becoming a school district transportation director.
"I had a lot of respect for his skills, and my assumption was that he could figure that out, what kind of training he needed," McLean's sworn statement reads.
McLean started as a science teacher at Marana High School at the age of 21 and worked his way up to the district's superintendency in 1995. He retired June 30, 2003, shortly after the allegations involving the bus driver were made.
In his sworn statement, McLean stated that he had approached Thomas about his willingness to receive a $5,000 stipend, which would boost both his salary and his calculated retirement benefits. McLean testified that the key advantage to hiring Thomas was to save the district money, which court records show was intended to add to teacher pay raises.
According to court records, Richard Lesko, who was an assistant superintendent at the time, had approached McLean about the risks associated with having only a part-time transportation director and often opined that the district was generally understaffed.
In his Sept. 21, 2004, deposition, Lesko stated he was responsible for oversight of the transportation department as assistant superintendent from 2000 to 2003.
When he became superintendent after McLean's resignation, Lesko testified that he made the decision to put a full-time transportation director in place. The district hired Don Powers in June 2004 to take on the job full time.
District spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the hiring of Powers as full-time transportation director wasn't an admission of any deficiencies or problems with the transportation department. Instead, she said, it was a proactive solution to deal with the expected growth in the district, which justified the need for separate maintenance and transportation directors.
"As we have grown … one person couldn't continue to do that and meet the needs of the district," she said. "As the job grew, the district needed to add a director of transportation and allow Mr. Thomas to look at the future growth in the district."
Lesko soon was forced to resign in July 2004 because of "communication problems." Board officials have not commented whether any transportation department issues played a role in their decision.
However, district records show Lesko made weekly detailed reports to the board. Copies of reports from the 2003-04 school year obtained by the EXPLORER are heavily redacted and show that district officials blacked out a section in one report titled "transportation reorganization."
According to the May 24, 2004, deposition of DPS Sgt. John Barber, the district, specifically Lesko, was aware for two years that having a part-time transportation director was inadequate and unsafe, and the department needed reorganization.
Barber, a DPS highway patrol sergeant at the time, was primarily responsible for school bus enforcement and participated in investigations into the school district's transportation department.
A 19-year veteran, Barber testified that he approached Lesko after an incident involving Marana bus driver Diana Teal, who was given a 143-count citation of felony endangerment for transporting loads of students while intoxicated in 2001.
"At that time I told him that he needed to get a transportation director and have somebody in charge of his department and somebody that that's their specific job was transportation and not … spread out," Barber said in his sworn statement.
"The way the transportation department was being managed needed to be changed," Barber further testified. "They needed to have a transportation director like every other school district."
Barber, whose position often involved him in investigations in several school districts throughout Southern Arizona, said he found that Marana had the most poorly managed transportation department of them all.
In conversations with Lesko, Barber said he criticized the district, and specifically Thomas, for not immediately reporting to police the 2001 DUI incident involving Teal.
According to Barber's testimony, Lesko stated he would "fix things" to make sure that bus drivers weren't driving drunk again. The district later took measures to stop allowing bus drivers to take their buses home at lunchtime.
According to testimony, Barber said he spoke with Lesko in January 2003 and Lesko asked for some input on how the transportation department was doing.
"I told him that he needed a transportation director before something bad happened," Barber stated. "I told him that if he did not hire a transportation director that he was probably going to be sued eventually and I did not know for what or when, but that eventually he was going to be in civil litigation."
Barber stated that Lesko agreed there could potentially be litigation against the district involving millions of dollars (See page 1 for related story on the lawsuit).
Carlisle Beasley, who served as a director of transportation in Nashville schools for 30 years, offered a sworn statement as an expert in the case stating that Thomas' stipend of $5,000 was "wholly inadequate and contrary to the standard of care given the size of the district and its overall budget."
The $5,000 the district paid Thomas to serve as director of the department was a small fraction of the district's 2003-04 budget, which totaled $72.9 million, court records show.
Beasley testified that the tickling incident was only part of a larger pattern of district negligence and failure to report matters to law enforcement. Court records filed on behalf of the plaintiffs suggest that the situation was foreseeable and preventable by the district given past problems and reports from other bus drivers that the bus driver had a fixation for female students.
"The district negligently failed to take appropriate action regarding (the bus driver) despite supervisor Sharon Woolridge's knowledge that he had a fixation for female students," Beasley's testimony reads. "The district also either negligently was unaware of (the bus driver's) practice of having children sit on his lap or, if it were aware, negligently chose to allow it to continue."
Throughout the case, the district's attorneys made numerous efforts to suppress the evidence against the district, including testimony from expert witnesses. One motion attempted to restrict the plaintiffs from using any variation of the word "molestation" in connection to the case.
According to court records, the district's attorneys made a motion April 7 to prevent the plaintiffs "from introducing evidence of how the district did or did not supervise bus drivers" other than the bus driver in question. Court records suggest the plaintiffs wanted to show that there were larger problems of improperly managing the transportation department.
According to court documents, the district sought to suppress the following evidence involving several district bus drivers:
€Evidence that a former bus driver was accused of having sexual relations with a minor.
€Evidence that, about three years ago, a former bus driver was accused of habitually speeding, was involved in five traffic accidents and had been observed without wearing required glasses when he was supposed to drive a bus that day.
€Evidence that on Aug. 28, 2003, a former bus driver was cited for allowing a student to sit on the hood of her bus.
€Evidence that a bus driver ordered or permitted a child to remove a desert tortoise from the road in front of the bus, and evidence that on another occasion in 2003, while training a new driver who hit a fire hydrant, the bus driver used profanities to address a police officer.
€Evidence that on April 3, 2001, former bus driver Diana Teal was issued a 143-count citation of felony endangerment for driving loads of children on her bus while intoxicated.
€Evidence that, in the fall of 2002, a bus driver was accused of speeding through crosswalks.
€Evidence that on March 29, 2004, a bus driver was observed by officers shifting a bus transmission from forward to reverse while she was not seated.
€Evidence that shortly after Aug. 7, 2001, a bus driver told a police officer to "go pack sand" when told to move a bus after a minor accident in the bus yard.
€Evidence that a bus dispatcher could not be reached on her radio one day.
In an April 7 motion to suppress the above evidence, the district's attorneys stated, "This is just another example of plaintiff's attempts to drag unrelated episodes into the case to complicate the issues. All evidence regarding the district's supervision of bus drivers other than (the bus driver in question) should be excluded." No orders to throw out the evidence had been issued when the case was settled April 25.
With the exception of a few incidents such as when a bus driver accidentally left a Desert Winds Elementary School student on a school bus in January, Powers, who now heads up the district's transportation department, said the year has gone smoothly for the department and having a full-time director has proven beneficial.
"It helps tremendously," he said. "I think it was a pretty successful year. We've made a great deal of progress in certain areas and we feel comfortable that we're on track. We do feel like we're planning for the future and making some progress."