NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When it's time for school to let out, do you want bus drivers taking care of your children -- or driving the man in charge of the school system?
This past fall brought new controversy over Metro Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph's use of a driver.
Now, as the district struggles to deal with a shortage of school bus drivers, hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates are raising new questions about whether Joseph put his needs above the needs of the city's children.
"Using a bus driver that is taking away from bus routes, it's inappropriate,” school board member Fran Bush said. “It's inappropriate because our children are suffering."
The school bus driver shortage has become so acute that for families, like Christi Proctor’s family, it means they're never quite sure what time their children will get home.
"The kids have started getting home later and later, and they're picked up in the morning later and later,” said the Bellevue mother of four. “We just never know what time they are going to get home."
For her middle school kids, it's often right at dark, sometimes later.
Two years ago, NewsChannel 5 Investigates first raised questions about Joseph's use of a driver. Taxpayers paid for the driver to play on his phone, waiting and waiting while Joseph did his business.
That issue resurfaced back in September when Bush, a new school board member, pressed the schools director on the use of that driver.
Joseph downplayed the concerns.
“When he's not doing work with me, he is driving students in the district,” he told board members.
'Let dispatch know I’m not driving a.m.'
NewsChannel 5 Investigates wanted to know, “Why should the needs of the children not come first?"
"The needs of the children absolutely come first,” Joseph insisted during a recent interview.
But, in response to a request under the Tennessee Public Records Act, NewsChannel 5 Investigates had obtained a text message from Joseph’s office where the bus driver asked his supervisor to let dispatch know that he would not be driving students on a morning when the director wanted a chauffeur.
In that case, we told the director, “Your needs came before the children."
Joseph claimed he had no idea what his driver meant by his text message.
"So you're giving me a text message that I haven't seen, and I don't know the context of it,” he said.
We answered, "Your staff gave it to us."
”I'm just saying I don't have context,” Joseph said.
'Your driver had a driver'
His staff also gave us other records, showing example after example of the school bus driver coming to Joseph's house first thing in the morning to get behind the wheel of Joseph's Tahoe, chauffeuring him to breakfast appointments and early-morning meetings.
To get there, the driver needed a driver.
"Someone has to bring the driver, if it was in the morning, to pick me up,” the schools director explained. “Someone brought him to my home. And this was a salary employee who doesn't make any extra, who just brings him where the car is."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "So your driver had a driver. That's not a very good use of taxpayer resources."
"It's efficient,” he insisted.
"I've never seen anything like this where you already have a driver, but then you have a driver to take the driver somewhere. That, to me, once again is negligent."
One morning, for an 8 o'clock breakfast at Monell's, a half a mile from the school board offices, Joseph met former school board candidate Erica Lanier.
Documents show the school bus driver and his driver were directed to go to Joseph's house to drive him back to breakfast.
While Joseph ate, the driver waited to drive the director two minutes back down the road to his office.
Joseph insisted that taxpayers could not necessarily trust the directions prepared by his assistant.
"There might be instances where I've had meetings, but it's not where he would necessarily drive me. So I would have to check your facts on that one,” he said.
Another morning, when Joseph was starting his day at McGavock High School, where his son attends, the driver was instructed: "Pick him up at home at 6:15. You will be driving he and [his son] to McGavock."
Bush said that made no sense to her.
"There is a time that you can spend time, you know, driving your son to school. You don't have to have a driver for that,” the school board member argued.
Again, Joseph claimed, "I didn't take my son to school that day."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted that the memo from Joseph’s own office indicated his son would be riding with him and the school bus driver.
"Well, the memo would be inaccurate, then,” Joseph said. “My son has never been in the car with me and a driver."
Doctor visits, weekends, vacations
On a few days, the driver's instructions show he was taking the director to an optometrist, to a doctor, to physical therapy.
“That was a very rare occurrence. It wasn't anything that was consistent,” Joseph responded.
And payroll records show the driver got paid on at least five weekend days for "driving Dr. Joseph."
On one of those dates, Saturday, April 7th of last year, the director’s calendar shows he was attending a fraternity event in Franklin.
So why do we have payroll records showing he was paid for that day?
"I'd ask you to clarify those payroll records because he definitely did not drive me to the Kappa meeting,” Joseph said.
The director’s staff argued that the bus driver’s payroll records are not necessarily accurate.
"This is very alarming for me to see this that we have hours logged and the superintendent is saying don't worry about that,” Bush said. “It did happen. It's in black-and-white that it happened."
There were also days that the school bus driver was assigned to drop Joseph off at the airport when he was heading out of town with instructions like this one to staff saying: "His car needs to be back on Sunday by 2 p.m."
Joseph said it was usually a supervisor who brought his Tahoe back to the airport to avoid parking fees.
"You won't find anybody any more focused on not using taxpayer dollars inappropriately than me,” he added.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Would you agree that, if you are going on vacation, you should pay for parking or you should Uber?"
"Without question, and I do,” he insisted.
But we found multiple airport assignments where Joseph's calendar listed no official business or, in some cases, showed he was taking vacation days for those trips.
"There's never been a time when I've been on actual vacation where I've just been dropped up and picked up,” Joseph said. “I'm sure if I've gone to go somewhere on the weekend, it was because there was some work involved there where they dropped the car off."
We asked, "So the records are bogus?"
"Your records, showing you were on vacation."
"I would have to look."
Again, his staff was not able to offer any clarification.
'We need to open up an investigation'
School board chair Sharon Gentry recently chastised her colleagues for their criticisms of Joseph.
“I don’t understand why we are stuck on the driver – I really don’t,” Gentry said.
But, with questions being raised about Joseph's conduct amid a bus driver shortage, he's suddenly promising changes.
"We looked at our practices. We made sure, with the bus shortage, that anyone who could be driving a bus is driving a bus -- and we are doing that now,” Joseph said.
Bush wondered why it took him more than two years.
"It's about time that you finally realized how much more we need our bus drivers to be doing their jobs and being there for our students,” she said.
Still, with the discrepancy between how Joseph says he's used the driver and the district's own records, the school board member said something more is needed.
"I clearly think, at this point, learning about this information, we need to open up an investigation.”
Our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that the $30,000-a-year driver made about $20,000 a year in overtime and extra pay for the last two years.
It does not appear that was significantly more than what he was getting before he began driving the director.
What is clear is that there were lots of occasions when he was chauffeuring the boss that he could have been behind the wheel of one of the city's yellow school buses.
NC5 Investigates: Metro Schools