Board insurer settles case

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A former school bus driver who sued the Board of Education settled his case early this month, a week before it was due to go to trial on Aug. 9.

Larry Barlar is satisfied with the amount of his confidential settlement, he said Monday. In June 2009, Barler's employment with the county was discontinued.

The settlement was handled by the county school system's insurer, the Tennessee Risk Management Trust and, therefore, according to school board member Barbara Kennedy, the school board did not have to approve it. The board did discuss it during a private attorney-client conference call before the special-call meeting on Aug. 1.

"It's been settled," confirmed board chairman Mike Keny. "We move on now."

Schools Director Roy Dukes could "not make a comment on situations like that," he said, so Dukes referred questions to the school board's Nashville-based attorney, Sam Jackson.

The Board of Education pays a $35,863 liability insurance premium every year, that covers "everything in the school system," according to Dukes. He said he thought the amount of the premium was based on the number of students in the system, and said he hoped it wouldn't go up because a claim had been paid.

Kennedy was not a board member when Barlar's case started, and stated she was not familiar with all the facts, but added, "I feel confident that this board is much more attuned to the need for experienced human resources personnel so that matters such as these can be prevented in the future," she wrote in an email.

At that time, the human resources director was Mitchell Byrd, who had been an elementary school teacher until then-director Stan Curtis promoted him.

Now, the interim assistant director, Dr. Larry Miller, former principal of Forrest School, is doing the human resources job, in addition to many other responsibilities.

In a written statement, Barlar set out the facts of his case.

He started driving a school bus in 2006, and always received above-average evaluations. In June 2009, Curtis made the decision not to re-hire him.

"When I appeared before the School Board on July 7, 2009," Barlar wrote, "all I was asking for was my job back driving a school bus."

School board members "basically ignored" him, Barlar said, and he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the next month. The EEOC issued a "Right to Sue" letter, and Barlar retained the Bussart Law Firm.

According to Barlar, Walter Bussart, the senior partner, wrote to new director Dukes "trying to settle this matter amicably," but was ignored again.

Bussart waited until the last possible day for a settlement before filing Barlar's law suit with the U. S. District Court in Nashville, alleging Disability Discrimination and Invasion of Privacy.

Nearly two years after Barlar received his "no-rehire" letter, there have been a number of changes at the system's Central Office and at the bus garage. Curtis and Byrd are gone, and Glenn Ezell, who was transportation director, has been demoted back to mechanic and replaced by former teacher Michael Frey.

But, according to Barlar, many things haven't changed.

"After being a school bus driver for almost three years, there's no way I would ever let my children ride a school bus," he wrote. "I've seen the conditions of different drivers and the buses." He alleges some drivers have had multiple accidents, while others can't see or hear well, and that some drive "impaired from drugs."

He concludes with a warning, "Because of all these conditions of drivers and buses, it's just a matter of time before there is a horrible accident involving a school bus. I saw the odds catch up more than once during my 25 years as a policeman."

The 1987 Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act created the Tennessee Risk Management Trust and the organization that resolved the dispute with Barlar. The trust provides governmental insurance coverage lacking in the commercial market, according to the TNRMT. Its Board of Directors consists of school, county and utility board members and officials from across Tennessee.