Originally created 01/04/06

School officials respond to lawsuit



Columbia County school officials filed a response in Augusta's U.S. District Court on Tuesday to a lawsuit that claims the school board discriminated against union bus drivers.

The response refutes all claims of discrimination levied against the school system in the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 13, said school board attorney Bill Fleming.

"We denied that we violated their free speech rights," Mr. Fleming said.

"We denied we violated their due process rights and that we discriminated against them."

The plaintiffs - Sissy Hobbs, Jamie Usry, Beverly Parks and Pamela Sullivent - claim education officials discriminated against them because of their membership in the Transport Workers Union, Local No. 279, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the system delayed processing Ms. Sullivent's application for employment, discriminated in assigning bus routes, refused to process employee grievances in a timely manner and made discriminatory recommendations to discharge.

Before the lawsuit's filing, Ms. Sullivent was hired by the board as a bus driver.

Ms. Hobbs, the area union president, and Ms. Usry, her sister, were terminated at a school board meeting on the day the lawsuit was filed.

Because Ms. Hobbs and Ms. Usry are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, School Superintendent Tommy Price would not disclose why the women were fired.

Mr. Price did say the board had just cause.

"The actions that we're taking have merit and have nothing to do with the status they may have with any association," Mr. Price said.

Lesley Troope, an Atlanta labor lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the women also were denied their right to free speech when their supervisors refused to let them address the school board at a public meeting regarding safety concerns.

The board has a policy that denies system employees from speaking in a board meeting about their personal employment. However, Mr. Price said the board never had an opportunity to enforce that policy.

"If one had requested to speak we might have gotten into that kind of discussion, but I don't recollect any bus driver asking to speak," he said.

Ms. Troope's law firm, Nakamura, Quinn and Walls, also represents Richmond County school bus drivers, who recently filed a lawsuit against the Richmond County Board of Education because of similar claims.

"Apparently, we're living in Communist China instead of the United States," Ms. Troope said. "Be that as it may, it will be an important civics lesson for the kids of those two counties."

Reach Donnie Fetter at 868-1222, ext. 113, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.

Both sides in a discrimination lawsuit recently filed against the Columbia County Board of Education will now enter the discovery phase. Each side might start conducting depositions later this month or early in February, said school board attorney Bill Fleming.