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Former Winchester school bus drivers plan suit

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Winchester city school buses are parked before the afternoon runs. A group of former city school bus drivers are preparing to file a lawsuit against the school division on the grounds of discrimination. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Women claim discrimination

By Candace Sipos -- csipos@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- E. Marie Sobien had to take $400 out of her retirement fund this week and plans to sell her gold jewelry to make another $200.

She's facing the possibility of homelessness but still has no regrets about her decision to quit her job as a bus driver for Winchester Public Schools, saying she would never work for the system again.

Sobien is in the minority in a group of former co-workers. The others were fired. But in the next few weeks, she plans to join at least three of these other women in filing suit against the school system for discrimination.

Currently, the women are filling out questionnaires with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ensures that federal laws enforcing workplace discrimination are upheld across the country. EEOC employees will then evaluate the strength of this potential lawsuit and help the former bus drivers through the process, Sobien noted.

"If I had driven for them much longer, I probably would have been just a nut case in the hospital," Sobien said. "That's how hard they were on me."

Sobien's son died in a motorcycle crash on U.S. 522 in March 2010. Before he was buried, Winchester schools Director of Transportation Sherry Whittington showed up at her home, wondering when she was coming back to work, Sobien said.

The week prior to the crash, Sobien had become a foster parent, which Whittington said "wouldn't fly" if it started to interfere with her job, according to Sobien. When she did return to work, she told Whittington that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression and wasn't sure she should drive. But Whittington convinced her otherwise, she said.

Sobien and Debi Hagerman, who believed she had been fired the first week of school, addressed the city School Board during its most recent meeting. Hagerman turned in a seven-page document recounting her complaints against the system to Superintendent Rick Leonard. A few days later, he asked her to meet with him and informed her that she had not been fired; her case was still pending investigation.

Cynthia Conrad was fired at the end of November 2008 after district officials found out that her husband was caught growing marijuana on their property. She agreed to take a drug test and without reporting the results, which she's convinced were negative because she didn't smoke marijuana, Whittington and district Executive Director Kevin McKew fired her.

Whittington would not comment on the criticism leveled by the drivers, saying that it was a personnel matter she didn't want "slung in the newspaper." She said Hagerman and Sobien "were on a mission for some reason" at the school board meeting.

McKew said he has not noticed any recent trends in firing practices and believes all terminations have been for legitimate reasons.

"Thankfully, we have a very professional driving pool and these are rare instances where that kind of thing has to happen," he said, noting that every driver has access to the procedures they are expected to follow at work, but the ultimate "litmus test" is whether the student passengers are safe.

Leonard agreed, saying the school system uses "the principles of progressive discipline" to deal with any employee misconduct by first reprimanding the worker several times, while counseling him or her throughout the process, before ultimately firing anyone.

"Certainly, if we ever come to a termination case, we want to make sure that we've done all these other things over a period of time," Leonard said.

Other drivers, however, also are unhappy with their treatment.

Victoria Sprouse, another former driver, was fired in December 2009. It all started in March 2006, she said, when she was hit head-on by a teacher on Piccadilly Street while driving a city bus. She was told to come back to work the sixth day, one day before she could start collecting worker's compensation benefits. McKew and Whittington instructed her to not file suit against the Daniel Morgan Middle School teacher, she said, but she decided to anyway.

"That's the reason I got fired, but that's not the reason they'll tell you," Sprouse said.

The reason they gave for firing her was because she had an "unauthorized passenger" on her bus, she said. The passenger was a young girl who lived with Sprouse and went to school with her daughter. Sprouse filled out the proper paperwork once, but said she was never informed she needed to do so every year. When she went to claim the original form after she was fired, it had disappeared from her file, she said.

Whittington also claimed Sprouse had used inappropriate language in front of children, according to Sprouse. For proof, she had to turn the bus tape up to maximum volume to hear the word that Sprouse, then a bus aide, said to the driver.

Sprouse was never able to have spinal surgery she needed following the 2006 crash. She realized when she went to set up a date for the surgery that her worker's compensation ended after two years due to a statute of limitations. She was told the school system had not filled out the paperwork properly and her surgery expenses were no longer covered.

"[Whittington] told me she took care of everything," the driver said, adding that she still has back pain.

She was fired in early December, just days before her scheduled court date. She had barely driven that school year, after being suspended until the end of October for not passing her physical. She passed it once in August and Whittington asked her to take another, but before she could, she told her that she had failed for taking painkillers prescribed to her after the crash.

Sprouse had been taking different painkillers for the previous four years and passed her annual physical each year. She always noted that she was taking painkillers on the form, a copy of which went to Whittington every year, she said. It didn't pose an issue until 2009.

According to Sprouse, McKew told her that he would make sure she never drove buses for another public school system again. Other drivers also said that district administrators deliberately made it difficult for them to find jobs following their termination.
McKew said "that's clearly inaccurate."

"We have processes and rules that we go by in terms of what kind of ... communications are made to prospective employers," he said. "Our procedures are established in terms of simply documenting the work history of a driver while they're with us."

Sprouse was one of the first to be fired or treated so poorly that she quit in a string of seven women over three years, according to Hagerman's letter to the School Board. No men have been fired in that time, it states, though they have not been without fault.

Director of Personnel Donna Eagle would not provide information on the sex ratio of former school system workers who have been fired, writing in an email that she could only provide the numbers of former employees who have left, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. According to her information, the turnover rate from the 2007-08 school year until 2010-11 averaged 7.8 percent, with 14 total separations.

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