I-Team: Ethics complaint targets Hillsborough board member

Susan Valdes denies taxpayers covered daycare bill
Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-28 18:54:33-05

Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes is under state investigation after a teacher accused the veteran school board member of using her elected post to obtain free daycare for her grandson at a taxpayer-supported child care center run by the school district.

Valdes, the subject of a recent ABC Action News I-Team report on her extensive school board travel on the public dime, denied the latest allegations through her attorney.

The investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics was triggered by a complaint from a Hillsborough teacher, Laurie Rodriguez, whose husband tried unsuccessfully to unseat Valdes earlier this year. Valdes narrowly defeated former school administrator Bill Person by 267 votes out of more than 23,000 cast.

Rodriguez, an adult education instructor at the school district's Erwin Technical College, told the I-Team that she became aware of Valdes' alleged childcare arrangements during her husband's election campaign last summer. Person received an anonymous letter, purported to have been written by a parent whose child attended the same daycare center as the Valdes grandson.

"I pay for my child(')s day care every week," the letter read. "All the other parents pay for their child(')s care too. Except one."

The letter writer went on to claim that employees at Leto High School, where the child care center is located, were too afraid of Valdes to make her or her son, Alexander Valdes, pay up as other parents must.

Tanya Arja, the school district's external communications manager, told the I-Team that the child care center, known as Leto Little School, is a service the district provides for county school employees. Alexander Valdes doesn't work for the school district.

As of September, there were seven children on a waiting list to get into Leto Little School, which is open on school days from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The district charges employees between $100 and $115 a week for each child, depending on the enrollee's age. Tuition has not increased in 10 years despite what a district history of the program described as a significant increase in operating expenses.

"Why did she not pay?" Rodriguez said. "I'm here today because they tried to hide it."

In a recent letter to school board members, Rodriguez contends the cover-up included county school officials seeking scholarship or grant money to take care of the Valdes family's tuition bill.

Emails obtained by the I-Team show another teacher raised concerns about the Valdes family not paying for childcare as far back as 2015. As of October of that year, the Valdes family owed more than $800, including late fees and penalties.

A school administrator assured the teacher that the district was working to obtain "grant funding" for the family "as we try to find creative ways to help our employees out," according to one email.

"What are you doing when you take that money?" asked Rodriguez, referring to the grant funding. "You're taking from other people who need it. People who really need it." 

Arja, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Jeff Eakins, told the I-Team that the district's legal team has reviewed the matter and found "no evidence to further review this concern."

School district officials say they cannot release any records that might show if the Valdes family paid Leto Little School tuition because it could violate student privacy. The Valdes family has withdrawn the child from Leto Little School.

The I-Team caught up with Susan Valdes at a public event two months ago after she declined an interview request. When asked about her grandson's daycare situation, she cut the conversation short.

"Look, do not go there," she told the I-Team. "Do not go there with my grandchildren, my family, my children, my grandchildren. Don't even go there."

Rodriguez's correspondence with the ethics commission shows state officials have assigned an investigator to the Valdes probe.

In a written statement to the I-Team, a lawyer for Valdes welcomed the state scrutiny. "We are pleased the Commission has begun their investigation as we fully expect its conclusion to clear Ms. Valdes of any wrongdoing so she can continue working on behalf of Hillsborough County students without this unnecessary distraction," wrote Tampa attorney Cheryl Forchilli, who once served on the ethics commission.

Forchilli dismissed the ethics complaint as "politically motivated."

School board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart told the I-Team in a written statement "that as board members, we take our ethics training very seriously" but "ethics complaints are handled at the state level and are beyond the purview or control of any individual board member."

Another school board member, Melissa Snively, agreed. But Snively added: "These are very serious accusations which certainly concern me as a school board member and as a taxpaying citizen. The information presented is very disturbing, and I expect a full internal investigation from the Superintendent's office."

Snively says Valdes should be afforded an opportunity to explain herself.

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