Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

Former Hillsborough school official files lawsuit alleging high-level corruption

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TAMPA — The fired human resources chief of the Hillsborough County School District is accusing district leaders and two School Board members of committing corrupt acts and then punishing her when she would not go along.

Stephanie Woodford alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that managers were pressured to hire a board member’s friend who was not qualified, that Woodford was asked to cover up that act in a state ethics case, and that one board member pushed another to revise her evaluation of superintendent Jeff Eakins.

The suit describes a highly politicized system in which Woodford was punished and defamed.

It describes a profane threat from board member Susan Valdes. "The only thing that matters in this district are the three P’s," she told Woodford according to the suit. She held up her fingers. "That’s power, position and p----, and I’ve got all three. So don’t f--- with me."

The suit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, asks that Woodford be reinstated with back pay. It asks for a jury trial and damages.

Valdes declined to comment Thursday, saying "because it is litigation, it is inappropriate for me to discuss anything." The district issued a statement saying it will vigorously defend the suit on both the legal and factual grounds as "there are a number of significant inaccuracies that will come out during the legal process."

Woodford, 51, alleges a pattern of humiliation at the end of a career that dates back to the 1990s.

Once, she said, her colleagues learned she was at a restaurant, having lunch with Dan Valdez, her predecessor. A group including board attorney Jim Porter, chief business officer Gretchen Saunders, assistant superintendent Tricia McManus and board chairwoman Cindy Stuart showed up at the restaurant.

Later, chief of staff Alberto Vazquez — who ultimately dismissed Woodford — said he was not happy that she had lunch with Valdez, one of numerous former executives Vazquez considered "evil at work."

Woodford was instructed to apologize to the others, and never to speak with Valdez again.

According to the lawsuit, trouble began when Susan Migueltorena, a friend of Valdes, applied for a teaching-level position in 2015 in one of the district’s adult technical colleges.

The lawsuit describes Migueltorena as Valdes’ campaign manager. Migueltorena did not have the proper qualifications for the job, and so Woodford blocked the appointment.

Migueltorena got the job anyway in 2016.

Laurie Rodriguez, a teacher who is married to former principal and current School Board candidate Bill Person, detailed the Migueltorena situation in a complaint to the state Division of Ethics . The district responded to the complaint, describing procedural mishaps as managers tried to change requirements for the job.

"My staff looked into this issue, and while an error with the job description was uncovered before Ms. Rodriguez’ communication, we corrected that error and I determined that my staff has acted appropriately," Eakins wrote on March 1.

Months earlier, Woodford alleges, Vazquez tried to convince her "to provide a cover up" for Valdes that would blame the human resources department.

Woodford said she was asked to describe to state officials an internal investigation that cleared Valdes, even though no investigation took place.

She took her concerns to Eakins, who "walked her out of his office" when she persisted.

Separately, Woodford describes a disagreement with Stuart about the board members’ evaluations of Eakins.

Stuart, according to Woodford’s description, did not like something board member Lynn Gray had written and wanted to convince her to revise it.

Woodford believed that "manipulating the evaluation was unethical and violative of School Board policy," the lawsuit states.

Vazquez, acccording to the suit, thought that "Gray’s comments were mean toward the superintendent." He had Porter, the attorney, speak with Gray.

The posting and re-posting of the evaluations happened shortly before Vazquez fired Woodford on April 28.

At the time, Vazquez told the Tampa Bay Times he fired Woodford because she violated a district policy against making "malicious or intentionally false statements about a colleague."

Woodford says this was an act of slander, as no cause was needed to fire someone in her position.

In the district’s statement, Eakins said, "I made the decision on Ms. Woodford’s firing alone. Character and ethics are extremely important to me. My expectation of my staff is that we carry ourselves with strong character, so it is disappointing to know a former member of my cabinet would make false statements that she and I both know are not accurate."

Stuart said she was "personally disappointed and borderline appalled" by the lawsuit. Like Eakins, she said it contained significant inaccuracies "and clearly it’s a one-sided document at this point."

A one-time principal of Wilson Middle School, Woodford rose through the administration during a teaching reform partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Former superintendent MaryEllen Elia named Woodford human resources chief in 2013.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow@marlenesokol.

 
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