MANATEE -- Allegations that a Manatee School Board member made an inappropriate sexual remark to staff and faculty at Miller Elementary School prompted an ongoing inquiry by the school district's Office of Professional Standards, Superintendent Rick Mills said Tuesday.
"This inquiry is in no way related to free speech and district employees. The inquiry was initiated as a result of Miller Elementary School employees reporting allegations of a school board member making an inappropriate sexual remark while addressing staff and faculty regarding McKelvey Park," Mills said in a written statement.
"As a result of this inquiry, other concerns have been raised that have required the district's Office of Professional Standards to interview multiple faculty and staff at Miller Elementary. If the inquiry warrants, an investigative report will be forwarded to the School Board of Manatee County for their consideration. As Superintendent, I am obligated to initiate an inquiry into such matters when they are brought to my attention," Mills said in the statement.
School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner confirmed Tuesday to the Bradenton Herald that he is the target of the inquiry.
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Miner said he was sitting in on a meeting of staff at the school several weeks ago, when a woman said that the Miller Elementary neighborhood of Bradenton didn't need another retail shopping strip, which McKelvey Park could become if sold to a developer. The park, owned by the school district, covers four acres to the north of Miller Elementary.
"I said that I agreed with her and that this part of the community needed another strip mall like Dolly
Parton needed a third breast," Miner recalled Tuesday.
"I heard later that one of the faculty members did not like the use of that term. I apologize to her or anyone else who was offended. There might have been a better choice of words," Miner said. "I could have said this part of the community needed another strip mall like Jack Nicholson needed another bald spot."
Miner said he believes the inquiry is in retaliation for his public opposition to the sale of McKelvey Park.
"I find it very regrettable that Mr. Mills and his administration are expending time and public resources in an attempt to cast me in a bad light," the school board member said.
Steve Valley, director of communications and family/community engagement for the Manatee district, said Tuesday that the Miller inquiry started with the allegations of an inappropriate remark, and spun off into other areas.
The inquiry, he said, is looking into other possible violations of school board policy.
"A lot of teachers are being questioned, not just kindergarten teachers," Valley said. "These people brought their concerns to the superintendent through Deputy Superintendent Diana Greene.
"The superintendent doesn't randomly assign the district investigator to do investigations," Valley added. "He is obligated to investigate when the concerns are brought to him."
Of Miner's attendance at the Miller faculty meeting, Valley wrote in an email that "Mr. Miner requested to speak to the faculty about McKelvey Park on Friday, April 25, 2014. School Board members usually do not sit in on school faculty meetings without following normal protocol of notifying the Superintendent, which he did not."
The Herald previously reported that Troy Pumphrey, an investigator for the Manatee School District, had interviewed a Miller Elementary kindergarten teacher who appeared in a Bradenton Herald video talking to her class about the possible sale of McKelvey Park.
The children can be heard chanting on the video, "Save our park, save our park."
The teacher's attorney, Peter Lombardo, said Monday that he believes his client will be exonerated.
"Nothing was ever said by any of the teachers that was inappropriate. We still have the First Amendment," Lombardo said.
On Tuesday, Lombardo said he was still reserving comment until the school district completes its inquiry.
"I want to see what happens," Lombardo said.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter" @jajones1.