Bus Drivers’ Case Begins, Charges Revealed

As of press time, the district had begun the process of questioning 15 bus drivers

    Since the East Hampton School District suspended three bus drivers and two mechanics in February, rumors and accusations have run rampant. Now, with two of the bus drivers opting for public disciplinary hearings, which began Tuesday, the district’s reasons and counter claims are coming out.
    Two of the bus drivers, Christine Vorpahl and Dawn Gallagher, have each been suspended without pay since March 20. Taken together, the two women face nine charges — charges that were largely unknown until Ms. Vorpahl’s public hearing began early Tuesday. The East Hampton Board of Education had voted to suspend the employees without pay at the March 20 board meeting, although they did not identify them by name.
    Ms. Vorpahl and Ms. Gallagher have retained legal representation from Thomas Horn of Sag Harbor and Lawrence Kelly of Bayport. Kevin Seaman of Stony Brook is representing the East Hampton district.
    On Tuesday, following opening statements by each side, the district called the first two of its 17 witnesses — Richard Burns, the district’s superintendent, followed by Bella Warren, a former transportation secretary. With a handful of witnesses planned for Wednesday, attorneys on both sides were unable to predict how long the hearings would stretch on.
    Though the original schedule had been for Ms. Vorpahl’s hearing to take place on Tuesday, followed by Ms. Gallagher’s hearing on Wednesday, that was promptly scrapped given the large number of witnesses.
    Mr. Horn, a labor attorney who has made a name fighting actions by East Hampton Town, said after Tuesday’s proceedings, that “good progress on our case” had been made. The district ­hadn’t shown “much of substance here. So far, none of the testimony has revealed anything that we didn’t already suspect.”
    Mr. Seaman said he was “very pleased.” He added: “These poor people, making a living driving a bus and they’re subjected to this coterie of supervisors who played favorites. They went after the weaker people.”
    He noted that while a settlement had been offered — paying Ms. Vorpahl through June — she ultimately turned it down, opting for the public hearing instead. Throughout Tuesday morning’s proceedings, Ms. Vorpahl remained expressionless.
    According to the charging document dated March 19, Ms. Vorpahl faces five charges including falsely identifying herself as a certified examiner of school bus drivers, gaining an unfair advantage with regard to overtime pay,  fostering a climate of intimidation, bullying, and ridicule within the transportation department, knitting and viewing non-work-related Internet sites during working hours, and failing to relocate a bus stop on Oakview Highway, thereby jeopardizing the safety of students. The district-appointed hearing officer, Thom­as Volz, is to recommend any penalties he deems warranted to the school board, which has the right to accept or deny them.
    In his opening remarks, Mr. Seaman described the transportation department as a “lord of the flies, renegade colony,” alleging that Ms. Vorpahl served as one of the “ring leaders,” subjecting colleagues to frequent bouts of ridicule and intimidation.
    “She’s run the gamut from every level of misconduct — from neglect of duty to inappropriate workplace behavior,” Mr. Seaman said. “As an employee, she has forfeited her right to be employed in the East Hampton School District because of her own conduct.”
    Mr. Horn’s opening remarks countered Mr. Seaman’s. “One of the things missing from Mr. Seaman’s list is my client ever being given an opportunity to explain or give her side of a story and the campaign that was against her going on behind the scenes with the aid of the administration. Clear from the evidence that every issue that’s talked about here in these charges relates back to supervision of the entire department, which was not the job of my client.”
    Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Horn described the charges as “vague and overblown.” Of the charge related to knitting during working hours, Ms. Horn dismissed it, saying, “Stop me before I purl again.”
    During Mr. Burns’s testimony, he noted that Ms. Vorpahl had received far greater overtime compensation than many of her colleagues. While he said a normal amount might range between $1,000 to $3,000 a year, Ms. Vorpahl had earned $14,325 between July 1, 2012, and January 17, 2013. Ms. Gallagher, meanwhile, had received $9,321 in overtime.
    As of press time, the district had begun the process of questioning 15 bus drivers. Regina Astor, a former bus driver, said she had never been trained by Ms. Vorpahl, even though she had been listed on the certifying document as having been trained by her. Mr. Horn had begun his cross-examination.
    While all five of the transportation department workers were originally suspended with pay, a mechanic has since agreed to a settlement and subsequent resignation. Two additional, unnamed employees remained suspended with pay.
    The public hearings are expected to stretch into next week — and possibly far longer.