MINOT — An RSU 16 school bus driver fired several weeks ago for racist and sexist comments has been elected to the board of the school system that fired him.
Mike Downing, 68, admits he has made comments over the years, including in recent months, calling Martin Luther King Jr. Day “National N(word) Day” and referring to Superintendent Tina Meserve and school board Chairwoman Mary Martin each as a “C(word).” However, Downing believes he should not have lost his job over it.
He was fired Jan. 22, after 45 years with the school system.
On March 2, Downing was elected to represent Minot on the RSU 16 school board. A write-in candidate, he won the open seat with 31 votes.
Because Downing’s dismissal was not made public and many people assumed he had retired, it is likely few voters knew that he was fired or why.
Starting this summer, Downing will oversee the superintendent who fired him and the school system he is considering suing for wrongful termination.
“I don’t mind telling you, when I first decided to do it (serve on the board), I said, ‘Well, you know, if she gives me a hard time, I’m just going to remind her you used to be my boss and now I’m yours,'” he said. “But I’m going there with the idea that I’m going to try to make things better, not worse. It’s not a vendetta.”
Both Meserve and Martin declined comment Tuesday, saying they could not speak about personnel issues.
However, in the official January investigation notice provided to the Sun Journal by Downing, Meserve outlined the complaints against Downing and why she was considering firing him.
“Mike, it is simply not possible for you to continue working in this school system when you repeatedly behave this way after being told that it’s not acceptable and that doing so again could cost you your job,” she wrote.
Downing, who has lived in Minot most of his life, began driving a bus for nearby Poland schools in 1973. He later became transportation director and driver for Mechanic Falls schools. He stayed in that position for about 25 years, until Minot, Mechanic Falls and Poland merged and chose a new director for the wider district. He stayed on as a driver.
Downing acknowledges that he has been warned or disciplined for his language over the years.
In 2012, he said, he received a written warning for using a slur to reference gay men while talking about same-sex marriage. In 2015, he said, he was suspended for three days without pay for calling a student a “moron.” Last year, he said, he was reported to administration for referring to a student on his bus as “the Negro girl.”
Also last year, he said, he was issued a verbal warning by the district’s operations director for referring to the superintendent and school board chairwoman each as a “C(word).” Meserve and Martin were not in the room at the time, but other RSU 16 officials were.
Then, in January, Downing said he was fired after he twice called the upcoming holiday “National N(word) Day” in separate conversations with co-workers.
Downing denies a couple of those early incidents, including that he ever referred to gay men in derogatory terms. He also does not believe he called a student a “moron,” but he is not certain. Downing said the boy in question refused to stop wiping his nose on another child, so he pulled the boy away and directed him to an empty seat.
“The principal (later) said that I called him a moron,” Downing said. “I don’t know if I did or not.”
Downing concedes the rest.
He said he did not know it was wrong to refer to an unknown, obscured child on his bus — whom he afterward realized was his niece — as “the Negro girl” when he was trying to point her out to a principal.
He said he also did not know it was wrong to use a racist term when talking about Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
He said they are terms that used to be OK for people in his generation, and he hears other people say them.
“It’s no different than other conversations in the drivers’ room day after day after day,” he said.
When he referred to the superintendent and school board chairwoman in a derogatory term, he said, RSU 16’s bus drivers and school officials were in the middle of a heated contract battle.
“I didn’t say it to their face and I didn’t say it in front of a crowd,” he said. “I think Tom (Kelly, transportation director) and John (Hawley, operations director at the time) were the only people who heard me. … Quite honestly, they didn’t like her any better than we did. I was ugly. I obviously wasn’t thinking. I thought I was safe talking to those two guys.”
Hawley, who left the school system earlier this year to become Naples’ town manager, declined to comment, saying he did not feel comfortable discussing a personnel matter involving Downing, an employee he oversaw.
Kelly is out of the office this week and could not be reached for comment.
Downing believes he was fired not because he has used sexist and racist language at work, two of those times in recent months after years of repeated warnings, but because he was one of the drivers who led the charge in forming a union this year.
“I just don’t think the punishment fit the crime,” he said.
In the official investigation notice, Meserve addressed why she thought Downing’s language was a fireable offense.
“Every one of our employees must constantly exhibit professional and appropriate behavior at all times on the job,” she wrote. “I recognize your years of service as a bus driver; but, to me, that means you should be one of the leaders who demonstrates the type of behavior that is expected of school employees.
“It also means that you have plenty of experience about what is, and is not, acceptable behavior. Simply put, your behavior is the opposite of what I would expect from someone who cares about their job, their colleagues and the students we all serve.
“We all must serve as role models to our young students and that means we behave professionally in front of them, as well as in front of each other, even when students are not present,” she continued. “Your admittedly racist and sexist comments and behavior are not only totally unacceptable for a school employee, it is incumbent upon me to remove you from your position as that is the best option to ensure that others do not see the RSU as condoning racial and sexual harassment or discrimination.”
In the official termination letter, also provided by Downing, Meserve summed up her stance.
“You basically said that you did not know what you did was wrong,” she wrote. “I find that impossible to believe.”
Downing said the new union is trying to help him fight his firing, but it is waiting on documentation from the school system. Meanwhile, he’s considering a lawsuit against RSU 16 for wrongful termination.
“I don’t think (the superintendent) had enough to do it,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on it.”
In the meantime, Downing will serve as one of five Minot representatives to the RSU 16 school board.
Downing, who had also served on the Minot school board for about five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he decided to run as a write-in candidate just one day before the March 2 election.
Losing his job with RSU 16 made him suddenly eligible.
“If I was still an employee there, I couldn’t serve,” he said.
Downing believes the board ignores public complaints about the school system and that board members go along with anything the superintendent and chairwoman want. He calls it “dirty pool,” and he wants to change all of that.
He is not concerned that he will have a conflict, being a board member for the school system that fired him and one he may sue.
“Wait and see what happens,” he said. “If I see that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, I would certainly resign and get out, but right now I think they need three or four new people on there because right now the school board is rubber-stamping what those two people say.”
Downing, a well-known driver who has also coached youth sports over the years, said he has run into a number of parents around town since he lost his job. Many think he retired. He has started telling them he was fired, but he does not go into details.
“I just said I was a bad boy,” he said.
Downing is looking for a new job. He is not focused solely on driving a bus.
“Anything,” he said. “I’d dig ditches. Anything. I don’t care.”
He goes back and forth about whether he said anything wrong as a bus driver. Sometimes, he is contrite. Other times, not.
“Nobody is ever going to convince me that was wrong,” he said, referring to his use of “Negro.”
Three seats were open on the school board for Minot. The other two went to incumbent Lisa Dulac, with 61 votes, and Laura Hemond, 51 votes.
Downing’s seat was held previously by Tina Love, who did not seek re-election. Downing’s three-year term begins this summer.
“I’m only one person, but — I don’t know a better way to say it — but I will be heard,” he said.