Manatee School District investigator interviews Miller Elementary kindergarten teacher

jajones1@bradenton.comMay 6, 2014 

MANATEE -- A Miller Elementary School kindergarten teacher shown on video talking to her class about the possible sale of McKelvey Park was interviewed Monday by Troy Pumphrey, an investigator for the Manatee School District, and could face disciplinary action.

Bradenton attorney Peter Lombardo, who represents the teacher, said he believes the investigation will be moving "pretty quickly," and that "it should be resolved in the favor of the teacher."

The teacher has not been disciplined yet, Lombardo said.

He declined to speak about the specifics of why the teacher was interviewed.

The video, taken by the Bradenton Herald, showed the teacher talking to her students on Earth Day under the trees of McKelvey Park, saying that the park property could be sold.

"Even though we are little people we can make a big contribution by showing what we feel about this park," the teacher said on the video. The children responded by chanting, "save our park, save our park."

The school district confirmed the teacher has not been disciplined, but did not respond Monday to questions on why a district investigator interviewed her or say what disciplinary action she could face.

"Nothing was ever said by any of the teachers that was inappropriate. We still have the First Amendment," Lombardo said.

Superintendent of Schools Rick Mills, citing the dire finances of the Manatee School District, which overspent its budget by $13 million in recent years, has said the district needs to look at all measures to correct the fiscal problems, including selling surplus property.

Residents passionately opposed the sale of McKelvey Park at a school board meeting, and then last week at a forum called by Mills in the Miller Elementary School cafeteria.

After several hundred opponents of the park sale filled the cafeteria, Mills took the proposal off the table, for now.

Barry Dunn, principal of Miller Elementary, did not respond to the Herald's request for comment Monday. However, in an email to Miller Elementary staff obtained by the Herald, Dunn cautioned against having students participate in anything that takes a side on the issue of selling the land.

"Please encourage families to come to the meeting, but do NOT have students create anything (like posters or signs) and do NOT speak out for or against this issue," Dunn wrote in the email, apparently sent sometime before last week's forum.

Lombardo said Monday that the district hasn't done anything to his client, and he hopes it will stay that way.

School Board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner, whose district includes Miller Elementary, has spoken out against the sale of McKelvey Park. He said Monday that he did not believe having the district investigator interviewing kindergarten teachers was a good use of resources.

"It was a way to have the weight of the superintendent thrown around and intimidate teachers if they spoke out," Miner said.

The teacher interview -- and there may have been several teachers who were interviewed -- was nothing more than using authority as a bully tactic, Miner said.

The Herald sought information on the interview and possible discipline from Steve Valley, director of communications and family/community engagement for the school district.

"The teacher has not been disciplined," Valley stated in an e-mail early Monday afternoon. "I just talked to her principal."

Valley did not respond to a second request for information about Pumphrey's inquiry.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.

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