State education officials don’t know whether every employee who works with Maine students – from teachers to bus drivers – has passed a criminal background check or is properly credentialed.

To ensure their employees are qualified and safe to work with children, local schools rely on an antiquated, paper-based system that has errors. Districts trying to hire employees regularly experience delays of more than a month when trying to determine whether there is proper certification.

At least one recent criminal case revealed that some districts aren’t making those checks.

The certification process for the 34,811 public school employees in Maine has been under scrutiny since April, when an education technician in SAD 6 was charged with sexually assaulting a student. The charges were later dismissed because Zachariah Sherburne left the job before having sex with the student, but the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald learned that Sherburne did not hold any credentials despite already being employed in another district, SAD 55, before he worked at SAD 6, which covers Standish, Limington, Frye Island, Hollis and Buxton.

That means officials in both districts failed to verify his certifications or act on the information that Sherburne wasn’t qualified for the job. The DOE is now investigating how both districts hired someone without credentials and will not comment until a final decision is issued. So far, the investigation has not been finished.

When the controversy came to light, SAD 6’s then-superintendent, Frank Sherburne – Zachariah Sherburne’s father – came under fire from parents who demanded his ouster because he had broken the district’s nepotism policy by hiring his son. While the board did not immediately dismiss Frank Sherburne, under state law, superintendents can be disciplined or even stripped of state credentials if their district employs someone without proper certification, authorization or approval from the Department of Education. It also can lead the district to lose some state funding.

Frank Sherburne ended up resigning from his position.

In June, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald requested a list from the DOE of all public school employees in Maine who do not have credentials. In mid-September, three months after the initial request, DOE officials would not release the list, saying that internal reviews of the list found errors – including credentialed educators showing up as being uncredentialed – and they couldn’t tell how many employees were working without current criminal background checks.

“You just can’t put kids at risk like this any longer,” said Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, a nonprofit organization that maintains a nationwide database on disciplined teachers and makes it available to state education agencies and school districts.

“If (teachers) don’t have certification and you’re letting them into the classroom, you are just taking a huge chance,” Rogers said. “Many districts will not even talk to someone who doesn’t have a certificate up front.”

Amanda Cooper, a teacher and parent who filed the complaint that prompted the DOE investigation into Zachariah Sherburne’s lack of credentials, said the system to catch such errors is not working.

“The system of checks and balances is overwhelmed,” Cooper said. “The intent for a quality system of checks and balances exists, but the reality is that we’re in 2016 and the system has become bogged down in the muck and mire of old-fashioned paperwork and snail mail.”

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Under state law and DOE rules, all public school employees must have proper authorization for their specific job category. As a first step, all candidates for a school job, from janitor to superintendent, must be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check.

A nine-person team at the state Department of Education reviews applications and issues certifications for public school employees statewide. They approve or reject applications and put that result into an internal DOE database known as NEO. It is up to district employees to check that site to see if applicants and new hires are properly credentialed.

Part of the problem at the DOE is that information is kept in separate databases, one on all public school employees statewide, the other for all credentialing information. The two cannot be cross-referenced, officials say.

“The real answers are on paper,” said acting Deputy Commissioner Debra Plowman, referring to the paper files at the DOE.

Bob Hasson, who oversees certification for the Education Department, acknowledged the system “needs to be modernized.”

“There is an incredible volume of work with not a lot of staff in an antiquated system,” he said.

Hasson, a former superintendent, said he remembers seeing the rows and rows of paper files in the Augusta offices when he started working at the DOE.

“It took my breath away when I saw it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was all paper.

“There is a great deal of room for improvement.”

MAINE EARNS AN ‘F’ FROM USA TODAY

Maine is one of 10 states that do not have an online system for the public to verify and review the credentials of public school teachers, according to a USA Today report published in February. The yearlong investigation reviewed teacher screening processes nationwide and found “a patchwork system of laws and regulations – combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information sharing between states and school districts.”

Maine got an “F” from USA Today on its screening process, with the report noting that despite strong state-level screenings before licensing teachers, Maine has weak mandatory reporting of teacher misconduct, doesn’t share misconduct data with other states and has no information online about disciplinary actions.

The delay at Maine DOE in issuing certifications also leaves local district officials playing a waiting game, with employees working in classrooms with only temporary credentials or working as substitute teachers while they wait for approval from the state. Some districts that won’t hire people without credentials may end up losing candidates who can be hired more quickly at another district that allows them to start on temporary credentials.

The current process requires the local school district or employee to submit an application to the DOE, where it is reviewed and either approved or rejected. An application can be rejected for a variety of reasons ranging from serious – such as a criminal conviction – to mundane – such as failing to pay a filing fee or attaching a transcript.

However, the DOE does not notify the school district whether its applicant has failed or passed the review. It is up to the district to log into the DOE’s database and check for itself whether each of its potential hires has been rejected, and why. Because of the paperwork delays, that can take weeks or months after the initial application was filed.

The state DOE will issue an eight-week temporary card once an applicant has applied for a criminal background check, but it’s still up to the district to follow up on the results.

State officials say their responsibility ends once they’ve processed the application, and they have no ability to verify if anyone uncertified is working at a school. That’s up to the school district.

“We are not a policing agency,” Plowman said. “We are supposed to be providing guidance.”

After the Press Herald reported on Sherburne not having credentials, lawmakers said it was up to state officials, and perhaps local school boards, to act.

“Certainly if there (are) any infractions and violations between the school system and state regulations, the Department of Education would step in,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “You start at that local level, and then DOE can hold the superintendent responsible through their certification.”

WORKING ON A FASTER SYSTEM

DOE officials acknowledge that the process of checking credentials gets bogged down, and delays of four to six weeks are not uncommon. At one point last year, the department had a 16-week backlog, officials said.

In a memo this summer, Hasson described what he called “this laborious task.”

In 2015, the department sent out 8,474 renewals and handled hundreds of new teacher applications, he said.

“In the course of a day, a certification specialist can process anywhere from one to ten applications, depending on the intricacies of each application,” Hasson wrote. The DOE has two full-time and two part-time specialists, he said.

The department is upgrading to an electronic credentialing system in December 2017, but district superintendents say they feel forced to act now, instead of waiting for a more efficient system.

SAD 6 has changed its hiring practices in the wake of the Sherburne case, according to interim Superintendent Paul Penna.

Now, no one is allowed to work in SAD 6 without a completed criminal background check, and teachers without current certification must work as substitutes, at lower pay, until their paperwork is complete. That is a tougher requirement than state law and a change from last year, when employees could still work while their paperwork was pending at the state level, Penna said.

“I think everyone is paying much more attention,” Penna said.

WAITING FOR FINGERPRINTING RESULTS

In Portland, the state’s largest school district with 1,300 employees, hiring policies were tightened in 2010 when the district started requiring on-site registration to conduct a criminal background check, ensuring that the employee has started the process.

Superintendent Xavier Botana, who took over the job in July, said school officials are discussing whether the district should conduct its own background checks to get the results faster, instead of waiting for the state to do them. In Indiana, where Botana worked before coming to Maine, the results of a comprehensive criminal background check, including a search of nationwide databases, was done within 48 hours.

“I didn’t realize we had people (waiting) for fingerprinting results. I assumed the next day they got the all-clear,” Botana said. “It does make the $30 or $35 cost to do a background check something that we need to consider.”

Botana said his review of the credentialing process “certainly has started a conversation here about how do we make sure we keep a tight process so we can make sure we keep our children safe.”

Portland also has a designated credential specialist whose job it is to make sure everyone’s credentials are in order. But that’s a luxury most districts can’t afford.

Ultimately, the person whose job is on the line is the superintendent, since under state law, employing someone without proper DOE approval is grounds for disciplinary action, including suspension or revocation of his or her certificate.

Teachers say they also want to make sure the credentialing system is improved, not only to move away from a paper-based system but to ensure student safety.

“If the system doesn’t work as it is, we have to find something different,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union for public school teachers in the state. “I think 18 months is way too long to fix a problem. We’ve waited too long.”

 

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