If the East Hampton School District bus depot had ears to burn, they would have been on fire during the first of two public disciplinary hearings for two drivers this week.
Kevin Seaman, an attorney representing the district, described a “Lord of the Flies-type culture” at the depot, calling it “a renegade colony located some half-mile from the main buildings.”
Thomas Horn, an attorney representing Christine Vorpahl, the driver whose hearing opened Tuesday morning, described “terrible” working conditions with “insect-encrusted fly strips hanging from the ceiling since last summer,” safety hazards and employees and buses shoehorned into “too small a box.”
Suspended without pay since March 20, Ms. Vorpahl and Dawn Gallagher opted for open disciplinary hearings under Civil Service law. Tuesday was the first time the charges against any of five transportation department employees who have been suspended with or without pay since February have been aired openly by the school district.
Mr. Seaman listed five charges against Ms. Vorpahl in opening statements before a school-district-appointed mediator, Thomas Volz. The attorney accused the former head bus driver of having made misstatements in a certification application, claiming to have trained and evaluated drivers she had not; of manipulating overtime runs to favor some drivers over others; of fostering a climate of bullying and ridicule for drivers she and others did not “deem worthy”; of knitting and surfing the internet when she should have been working; and of ignoring employees’ requests to move an Oakview Highway bus stop to the other side of the street for students’ safety.
The district’s attorney described a staff table at the depot that had “a winners’ side” and “a losers’ side.” He described a festering climate of disregard for “normal workplace activity and decent human interactions” and accused Ms. Vorpahl of being “one of the ringleaders behind the establishment of this culture.”
“Ms. Vorpahl has forfeited her right to work in the East Hampton Union Free School District,” Mr. Seaman said. The bus driver was silent during his opening statement, as was Superintendent Richard Burns, who recommended the suspensions and the charges.
When it was his turn to speak as a witness, Mr. Burns described a longstanding discomfort, even before he became superintendent, about “the atmosphere at the bus barn” that was exacerbated last fall when a student’s suicide was attributed by some to bullying at the high school. As he started to investigate the transportation department, he said, its former secretary and a number of bus drivers, some of whose testimony was scheduled to follow his own, came forward with specific complaints about bullying and insults or inequalities in overtime runs, which he said his own further investigation—looking at overtime sheets, interviewing bus drivers as a group and individually—supported.
“Many bus drivers came to me and said how unfair the [white]board was, and said that Christine Vorpahl was the author of the board runs … she was the one in charge,” said Mr. Burns, who said he found large discrepancies in overtime pay that seemed to make no sense in “a straight rotation.”
The superintendent recommended the suspension of five transportation workers, originally all with pay, in February. Two other employees remain suspended with pay and a mechanic who went on to be suspended without pay on March 20 agreed to a settlement leading to his resignation, Mr. Burns and Mr. Seaman said earlier this week.
Joining Mr. Horn in representing Ms. Vorpahl on Tuesday was Lawrence Kelly, whom Mr. Horn described in a press release as a noted Bayport civil rights attorney. They criticized the superintendent for assuring the community on the district website that the transportation suspensions did not mean that student safety was jeopardized while suggesting otherwise in the charges.
In his opening statement, Mr. Horn described a campaign of backbiting against his client, whom he said had never been given an opportunity to explain her side of the story, that included not only other transportation workers but the district’s administration as well.
“The district actually held a meeting at the facility” to show the public how awful it was, he said, evidently referring to the previous superintendent, and should have addressed the physical plant instead of leaving the employees “sitting over there … deliberately left wanting.”
“They have this site, it’s a terrible site, and to say that somehow the environment is divorced from that and say she is the determining factor … it’s not logical, and it’s meanspirited to pursue charges in this way,” Mr. Horn said.
The attorney said Ms. Vorpahl had received glowing evaluations and that she had taken direction from the former transportation head, Edmond Bletterman. “This is an effort to try Mr. Bletterman in absentia,” Mr. Horn said. “Ms. Vorpahl is not middle management,” he said. “She is a bus driver. They paid her extra money and then they took it away from her. When the money went, the responsibilities should, too. For them now to divine that she was in charge of overtime when there were two supervisors. …”
Mr. Horn said putting in overtime had been mandatory, and that some “self-identify” as winners and losers, claiming “victim status” in the latter instance. Ms. Vorpahl “writes neatly,” he said, and in an “almost sexist” pattern had been designated the person to put names and runs on the rotation schedule whiteboard. Thus she has come to be seen by some as “the grand poobah of overtime,” he said, adding his suspicion that “someone has a board member’s ear, or an administrator’s ear.”
According to Mr. Horn, the former transportation head “sought help for conditions that were going on in this department and he was ignored” (“He sure was,” murmured a woman in the audience).
“If you sit there and stir the brew and something comes to the surface and you pick out what you want,” Mr. Horn had said before Tuesday’s hearing, “I don’t think that’s being a responsible administrator.”
A press release quoted Mr. Kelly as calling the charges “amateurish, hypocritical and ignorant misstatements crafted by the superintendent.” Ms. Vorpahl and Ms. Gallagher were entitled to representation by the New York State United Teachers but chose Mr. Horn and Mr. Kelly “for their own reasons,” Mr. Horn said on Monday. At that time, he said he and Mr. Kelly planned to argue that “the charges were vague” and that both drivers “should be back on the payroll.”
As of about noon on Tuesday, Mr. Horn had agreed to postpone his cross-examination of the superintendent so that Mr. Burns could provide him with notes the superintendent had taken while interviewing transportation employees, some of whom were waiting to testify before making their regular bus runs.
According to Mr. Seaman, they never got that far, with only Ela Warren, the former department secretary, and Mr. Burns having testified by the end of the day. About 15 bus drivers were expected to testify beginning Wednesday morning, according to Mr. Seaman, who said that in the interest of continuity Ms. Vorpahl’s hearing would continue, postponing that of Ms. Gallagher.