East Hampton School District Bus Driver Hearing Rolls Along

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Attorneys for Christine Vorpahl, an East Hampton School District bus driver who’s been suspended without pay since March 20, questioned the credibility of witnesses for the school district as an administrative hearing continued on April 24.

It was the second day of Ms. Vorpahl’s hearing, which is set to pick up again on Thursday, May 2. According to the school district’s attorney, Kevin Seaman of Stony Brook, 10 more bus drivers have yet to testify, and Superintendent Richard Burns has to finish his testimony.

Bela Warren, a former transportation department secretary, and Regina Astor, a paraprofessional and former bus driver, are among those who have already spoken at Ms. Vorpahl’s disciplinary hearing, which is being mediated by Thomas Volz.

Ms. Vorpahl and Dawn Gallagher, another bus driver suspended without pay, chose to have their hearings open to the public. Like Ms. Vorpahl, Ms. Gallagher is being represented by Thomas Horn of Sag Harbor and Lawrence Kelly of Bayport, who have called the district’s charges against their clients “amateurish, hypocritical and ignorant.”

Mr. Horn said in a press release that opening disciplinary hearings to the public “unlocks the secrecy of how employees are often mistreated and how town boards and school boards mismanage taxpayer monies.”

According to statements made on the first day of Ms. Vorpahl’s hearing, the district is charging the former head bus driver with providing false information in a certification application; favoring some drivers with overtime runs while bullying and insulting others; knitting and surfing the web on the job; and ignoring requests to move a bus stop for children’s safety.

On the second day, Mr. Kelly accused the district of having “embraced a phony liar” in Ms. Warren, who reportedly supported the district’s charges that Ms. Vorpahl knitted for hours on end, favored some drivers when it came to overtime, and cultivated an atmosphere of “winners” and “losers” at the bus barn on Route 114. He criticized Mr. Seaman for not having identified her earlier as a witness, questioning her own employment history and willingness to make some allegations based on rumor.

Mr. Seaman, on the other hand, described Ms. Warren as “a compelling witness” who’d offered “genuine testimony, honest testimony.”

Ms. Astor took some heat of her own at the second day of hearings. First, she testified that Ms. Vorpahl had treated her in a “very condescending manner,” criticizing or disagreeing when she radioed in questions about issues she felt affected students’ safety, such as an unplowed road at Grape Arbor Lane or the placement of the bus stop on Oakview Highway; that Ms. Vorpahl knitted “every day” in the drivers’ room and had drivers sign documents asserting that she’d trained them when she had not; that certain drivers got more overtime; and that words like “jerk” and “stupid” were routinely used by Ms. Vorpahl and others.

“I sat at the loser table,” said Ms. Astor, who said she woke up each morning with a stomach ache and that another driver would sit crying in her bus rather than come into the bus barn from the cold. “I’d walk in the door I’d say good morning to Christine,” Ms. Astor said, “and the nose goes in the air, like I was dirt.”

Mr. Kelly, however, pressed Ms. Astor about her own work for the transportation department, homing in on an accident she’d had as she pulled out of the bus depot one day in 2010, on her “putting a gouge” into another bus as she parked in the lot on Route 114, and on what he described as an unfavorable evaluation by a driving instructor. He suggested that her eyesight was to blame, as she had been treated for glaucoma.

“Bottom line here, your honor,” he told the administrative mediator, Mr. Volz, “is that this individual is a very poor driver of a bus.”

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