Cover Story

Asleep At The Wheel

by Leslie Turk

Parents are understandably upset that a local bus driver was back at work the day after receiving an off-duty OWI, but the negligence of Lafayette's school system and board is really driving their anger.

October 14, 2009
Written by Leslie Turk

Lafayette Parish school bus driver Kenny Joseph Mire has made bad decisions in his life, going back to at least 2002. That's the year he pled no contest to a simple battery/domestic violence charge and was given a five-month suspended sentence, according to news reports. It's the same year he pled no contest to an amended charge of attempted felony theft (down from simple burglary) over $500 and was given a 12-month suspended sentence with the stipulation he refrain from further criminal conduct.

It's the same year he was hired as a Lafayette Parish bus driver.

Seven years later, 50-year-old Mire is still making bad choices. On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 9, he admitted to the officer who pulled him over for speeding in his personal vehicle on La. 98 that he had been drinking. He "performed poorly" on the field sobriety test and was cited for OWI, later registering a blood alcohol content of .174 (after the Breathalyzer failed twice, according to his attorney). It's illegal in Louisiana to drive with a BAC of .08.

Kenny Joseph Mire made yet another bad decision just a few hours after bonding out of jail about 3 a.m. - he got behind the wheel of a school bus and drove students to Acadiana High School and J. Wallace James Elementary School. That decision ignited a wave of furor among parents who were not notified of the arrest and were shocked that such behavior would be tolerated by the system they entrust their children to every day. After his morning route, Mire went to Lafayette Parish Transportation Director Bill Samec's office to inform him of the arrest, according to Samec.

Samec, who could have taken immediate action to address the situation, instead exercised poor judgment, allowing Mire to continue driving that day. He did not take any action against Mire, nor did it strike him that there was no policy in place to prevent a bus driver from getting back behind the wheel after an OWI. Samec's inaction is baffling, to say the least.

And there is more. Barry Sallinger, Mire's attorney, insists at least one employee knew his client had been arrested and allowed him to continue driving the morning route. Sallinger declined to name the employee. "He had face to face contact with a person of supervisory authority," Sallinger says. "They met at 6:30 a.m. at Acadiana High. Mire got down, shook hands in front of his bus, and told him the situation. The supervisor obviously came to the conclusion Mr. Mire was not impaired and not in violation of school board policy or revised statutes."

Burnell Lemoine

Photo by Robin May

Samec's own revelation that he knew about Mire's arrest the day after is just coming to light publicly this week, more than a month after the incident. "I haven't kept it a secret," says Samec. Samec says after meeting with Mire at his office he reported the incident to Personnel, to the best of his recollection Lawrence Lilly, who is deputy superintendent of human resources and operations.

Lilly confirms he was notified by Samec but can't recall when.

No one can explain why the issue was not immediately brought to the attention of Superintendent Burnell Lemoine. "It was way after the fact," Lemoine says, noting that his first knowledge may have been from media inquiries two weeks later.

Parent after parent spoke up at last Wednesday's school board meeting about Mire's failure to notify officials, but no one in the administration corrected them, leaving parents to assume most people in the meeting learned about the arrest the way they did. "I think a lot of school board members heard about it on the news," says Karla Bruno, one of the most vocal parents who immediately pulled her 5-year-old off Mire's bus when she learned of the OWI arrest.

But what has been even more troubling to parents and the rest of this community is that the Lafayette Parish School Board has operated for decades without so much as a policy requiring its drivers arrested for on- or off-duty OWI - or any illegal drug charge, or any arrest for that matter - to notify the school system before returning to work, before driving or interacting with children. This long-standing negligence of the school board, what amounts to a blatant disregard for the safety of our school children, could have had potentially disastrous consequences.

School officials have repeatedly said their hands were tied in this recent matter because Mire is a tenured bus driver who is allowed certain protections under the law. Most bus drivers with three years of service are protected by tenure law, which opponents say is outdated and unnecessary for school bus drivers.

Bill Samec

Photo by Robin May

This Mire incident was the last straw for state Rep. Rickey Hardy, who was often a thorn in the side of bus drivers when he served on the school board from 1994 until his election to the House in 2007. Hardy plans to file a bill to do away with tenure for all bus drivers hired after July 1, 2010; all existing bus drivers would be grandfathered.

"I take the blame and full responsibility," Hardy says of the recent OWI incident, "but changing anything with bus drivers was like pulling teeth without the shot." Hardy, however, believes the school board hid behind tenure on this matter. "The issue is that they just didn't want to do it. He should have been removed off that bus. He should not have driven that bus that day. He was allegedly still under the influence. What if an accident had happened and all those kids had died?"

Hardy says bus drivers should be on a level playing with other employees. "You don't have tenure for cafeteria workers, custodians, other employees, except for teachers. Why do you need tenure to be a bus driver? Just do your job."

Tenure can make it difficult to remove a problem bus driver, and that is reason enough to do away with it, says state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who learned of Louisiana's tenure law for bus drivers after taking over the job in early 2007. He's unaware of any other states that offer tenure to bus drivers. "It's a pretty unusual circumstance," Pastorek says. While tenure for bus drivers does not have an impact on academic achievement, what Pastorek calls his "sweet spot," the super did consider tackling the issue when he took over. "I decided I would first focus on school boards," he says. "At this time it's not high on my agenda, but it certainly begs the question of why we have it in the first place. If the school board has the position that it is hard to fire a person who has some kind of driving violation while under the influence, [that's] a perfect expression of what's wrong with having tenure."

Pastorek believes most of the policy making for situations like this should be left up to local school districts. "We all have an interest in having safe bus drivers, but there are all kinds of circumstances which arise, and local school districts are in a better position to resolve [them] than the state."

"Tenure does afford [bus drivers] a heightened due process procedure, just like we have with a teacher," school board member Mike Hefner says. "You've got to have more evidence, and it's much more formalized than an at-will employee, a non-tenured employee."

Kenny Joseph Mire's mug shot has been snapped several times since the mid 1990s, but he has so far dodged any professional repercussions with his employer.

Getting tenure out of the equation appears to have widespread support. "I never thought it made sense, and I don't think it makes sense now," Hefner says, noting that drivers' rights are protected by state and federal employment laws.

But not all school systems let tenure law get in the way of drafting sound policy. Indeed, the state statutes governing OWI and other driving infractions are vague, and many school systems draft their own standards and policies. Several Louisiana systems told The Daily Advertiser that a driver with Mire's record would not be allowed to return to work for their schools. In East Baton Rouge Parish, drivers arrested for OWI are removed immediately, and a hearing is held to take appropriate disciplinary action, the paper reported. Of the 650 drivers in that parish, none has ever been arrested for OWI, Transportation Director Bill Talmadge told the paper. Talmadge was unavailable for comment last week for this story.

Lafayette Parish has 282 buses running every day, roughly half board owned and half contract like Mire, who owns his bus. In defending the lack of policy governing OWI and drug arrests, both Samec and Lemoine say in all their decades in education they have never had to deal with a case like this. Samec served as transportation director in Lafayette Parish from 1997 to 2000, retired and was re-hired in August 2007, in large part to clean up a department plagued by budget and management problems. "This department was dysfunctional," Samec says. But in 2004, in between Samec's stints as transportation director, and while Lemoine was in the administration, Mire was arrested for OWI. And there appears to have been some awareness of the incident at the time, as School Board member Mike Hefner knew about it. "I had heard through the grapevine, through some of my driver contacts," says Hefner, who has been on the board more than two decades. Mire was found not guilty when the arresting officer failed to show up in court.

Still, no one at that time thought that we might need a policy?

Had Mire been driving in St. Tammany Parish when he was arrested in September, he would have been required to report his OWI before returning to work. In fact, that school system's policy applies to every employee. "Any employee cited or arrested for DWI or OWI, or for any violation of a criminal statute or ordinance, save and except for citation or arrest for a routine traffic violation, shall report the citation or arrest to his supervisor prior to assuming regular duty," the policy reads.

The LPSB finally came around last week, voting to require bus drivers to report OWI arrests to the human resources director and their immediate supervisor before returning to work. The policy applies to OWIs issued on and off duty and calls for the driver to be evaluated by a substance abuse professional. He cannot return to work until that professional and the directors of HR and risk management clear him "as fit for duty," according to the new policy. In the meantime, while Mire undergoes evaluation and potential treatment, he is being paid to sit home. Mire could be back behind the wheel in a matter of weeks or even days.

At last week's meeting, the board also voted to suspend Mire for three days without pay, action Director of Risk Management Mona Bernard says was taken because Mire got back behind the wheel of his bus after being released from jail. Mire was released at 2:47 a.m., according to police records, and was likely on the road before 6 a.m.

Mire could be suspended with pay pending the outcome of his case, but the board appears disinclined to do so because of the cost of paying two bus drivers. With a hearing before the board, however, it is possible that someone with an OWI could be suspended without pay until there is a decision in his case, though the board's lack of a policy would make this option difficult.

A bus driver convicted of off-duty OWI would be terminated, school officials said at the meeting, because an OWI conviction results in the loss of a bus driver's commercial driver's license. Samec says the driver would not be eligible for reinstatement in the parish school system even if he got his commercial license back. Current school board policy outlined in the "Bus Driver and Bus Attendant Handbook," dated October 1998, calls for bus drivers to be terminated after a second offense OWI while on duty. There is no mention of what happens after a first offense OWI while on duty, nor is there anything in the policy addressing consequences for off-duty OWIs.

What if a bus driver gets off on a technicality? Why does a termination hinge on a conviction? It could be written into the policy that if the blood alcohol test is validated, the driver is fired. What about a driver who clearly fails a field sobriety test that is captured on tape but he isn't convicted for some other reason? What if the driver refuses the BAC? Either of those could be grounds for termination, but there must be a policy. If we have to live with tenure, let's address conduct outside of employment. With the proper policies in place, the school board could hold a hearing for the employee, either private or public, and make a determination about his conduct and whether he should return to work.

And there is no question that punishment should be harsh when it comes to bus drivers who drink and drive, whether on or off duty. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a more severe threshold for drivers with a commercial license and those performing safety-sensitive functions. Drivers with a BAC registering .04 percent lose their CDL for a year, regardless of whether they were on or off duty.

"If Mire prevails at his administrative hearing, he will not lose his CDL privileges," Sallinger says. The second phase, the criminal process, is likely to start in November or December, according to the attorney.

After being warned in 2007 that it did not have a clear policy for bus drivers who violate the law, the Lafayette Parish School Board failed to follow up.

Photo by Robin May

Parents' questions at last week's meeting revealed even more troubling deficiencies in school board policy.

When Misty Everett, whose 5-year-old daughter rides Mire's bus, asked the board and staff if there was any requirement for someone arrested for pedophilia, burglary or rape to report the arrest before returning to work, she didn't get a straight answer. She was informed that school officials peruse the daily police blog to determine if any employee has been arrested. If there is no policy, how would the system know if someone were arrested in another city or state if it is checking local arrest records?

The new policy addresses alcohol and drug use but is likely to be expanded to cover more arrests, say both Hefner and Lemoine. "I think we need to set up a mechanism for more frequent background checks ... particularly now that we can run our own fingerprints," Hefner says. "We are going to keep this going as far as tightening up the policies. As far as notification, you could make it a blanket for any arrest. Staff takes a look at it on a case by case basis."

That the board took so long to draft and vote on a policy requiring on OWI to be reported to supervisors is more egregious in light of a May 2007 Daily Advertiser investigative story on Lafayette Parish bus drivers' personal and criminal records.

At the top of the list of those with the most checkered courthouse record? Kenny Joseph Mire. Written by former staff writer Jason Brown, who has since joined The Advocate, the story clearly pointed out the lack of policy for dealing with a driver accused of breaking the law and ran through Mire's legal troubles from 1993, when he was first arrested for an OWI that was later dismissed, to 2006, when he was arrested for theft and pleaded no contest. The story noted that Mire was arrested for simple battery six months before he applied for employment with the school system. About two weeks after he was hired, he was arrested for simple burglary of a business.

"This is my personal time," Mire told The Advertiser in 2007. "I have never done nothing wrong on this bus. It's an invasion of privacy really is what you call it."

In its "Who's at the Wheel?" story, The Advertiser reported:

Mire claimed Charles Conrad, acting director of transportation, knew of all the charges. Conrad denied that and told The Advertiser that Mire informed him of them only after being interviewed for this article.

Even some of Mire's fellow bus drivers were upset by his record.

"How can you trust your kids with someone like that driving your bus?" said Bobby Begnaud, a 40-year bus driver.

When [then Superintendent James] Easton and Conrad were asked whether they would feel comfortable having their own children ride a bus with Mire, both said they would not.

"No clear remedy exists when the school system has hired a driver who has violated the law after being hired," the story noted.

While the school system does do background checks and there is a question on the application about prior moving violations, the story found several instances where the checks failed to turn up drivers' violations.

After the exposé, a committee was formed to review the paper's findings, Lemoine says. All of the drivers were interviewed. At least one, Dana Royale Arceneaux, who listed no prior violations on her application but was found by the paper to have had five charges, including careless driving with a wreck, theft and speeding, resigned the same month the story was published.

When Lisa Martarona, whose 11-year-old daughter rides Mire's bus, spoke at the Oct. 7 meeting, she told the school board and school officials that she'd only found out about Mire's arrest the previous Friday. She wanted to know when HR found out about it, but HR Director Lilly did not respond that he had known for some time, if indeed he were contacted immediately by Samec, as Samec recalls. "As soon as you find out, we should find out, to have that choice, not to allow our children to ride his bus," Martarona said to a loud applause.

Samec, who attended the meeting, didn't speak up. He didn't tell anyone that Mire was in his office Sept. 10 - that he confirmed Mire had a driver's license, determined he was OK to drive and sent him back behind the wheel.

Hefner is concerned that Samec did not notify the superintendent and took it upon himself to allow Mire to continue working the day after his arrest. "I'm not happy with that at all," Hefner says. "It's part of the checks and balances. That's something the superintendent is going to have to take upon himself and then make recommendations to the board. We're prohibited by law from getting involved in personnel matters."

When told by The Independent that Mire voluntarily went to Samec, Hefner was taken aback. "That's the first I hear that Kenny initiated the contact," he says.

Though he declined to address the issue of potential consequences for Samec, Lemoine does not appear poised to take any action against his employee. "A day has not gone by that we have not talked about that," he says. "I'm upset that we did not have something in place to take care of the situation."

But no one can say why there has been no policy. Hefner says at the time The Advertiser story was published the relationship between board members and then superintendent Easton was hostile. "That's the only thing I can think of, and it's not an excuse," he says. "When there is that kind of acrimony you can't focus on some of the important matters."

"We could have [suggested a policy after the story]," Director of Risk Management Mona Bernard told The Independent during last week's meeting. "It could have been any of us."

For how he handled the situation with Mire, Samec offers little apology. "If the man got arrested for DUI at whatever time it was 8 or 9 o'clock at night [it was 10:22 p.m.], and I'm talking to him at 10 o'clock or whatever the next day I don't personally, professionally think it's an issue," Samec says. How much sleep had Mire gotten that night and was alcohol still in his system when he drove? Samec didn't bother with those questions.

Samec says there was nothing he could do about Mire's decision after the fact. "I lost my time machine somewhere," he says. "It's easy to sit back and second guess. It's a little tougher when you're on the front lines making the decisions," he continues. "I've been a director of transportation for 23 years. This is the first time I've ever had this happen. I don't have a crystal ball, and I'm not capable of writing a policy for something that may happen tomorrow that has yet to happen, and I am guilty of that."

Lemoine echoed that sentiment at the meeting, saying it's impossible to have a policy for every issue that arises.

Impossible to have a policy requiring a school bus driver to report an OWI before returning to work?

That's about as basic as it gets, says Sharon Eaglin. Eaglin, whose grandchildren don't ride Mire's bus, showed up at the meeting last week to question the board's priorities. "Y'all focus on hoodies," Eaglin said, "but y'all couldn't take time to make a law to protect our children?"

"The other thing that is missed in this is Mr. Mire has some rights, too. I think we still operate on the basic principle of innocent till proven guilty," says Samec, in what sounds like a poor attempt to cover up his own bad judgment in clearing Mire to continue driving after his arrest.

Without a doubt, Mire should - and will - have his day in court. But that's hardly what begs scrutiny in this near miss with tragedy. This is where parents' attention should be clearly focused: Lafayette Parish school administrators have no more fundamental responsibility than assuring the safety and well being of our children. Having been put on written notice about this driver once before in 2007 just a month before he took over as interim superintendent, Lemoine and his staff failed to heed the warning that their policies were deficient in dealing with drivers like Mire.

The school board, charged with creating policy and oversight of Lemoine and his central office managers, were on notice too, having read the same fine reporting of our daily paper. They share the shame. The board owes parents not just a vigorous new policy that makes certain this situation never repeats itself. It also owes the public evidence it's capable of  some minimal level of self regulation by producing a full and detailed accounting of how this miserable study in mismanagement and incompetence came to pass.