By ALICIA LEONARD
The Walton County School Board(WCSB) met an hour prior to their regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 5 to discuss hiring practices and the steps taken to screen applicants for prior issues before hiring.
District staff put together a Power Point presentation with Human Resources Director Sonya Alford responding to questions along with attorney Holly Dincman and Executive Director of the Florida School Board Association Dr. Wayne Blanton.
Alford first went over state statutes that govern the powers of the board concerning personnel. She outlined that the board makes hiring decisions upon the recommendation of the district superintendent. Walton School District rules closely mirror state rules according to Alford.
The statutes allow board members to make rules and then allows the superintendent to work out how to implement those rules. Chairman Mark Davis asked about the the question on applicant paperwork for felony convictions, or those that plead no contest to a felony conviction. “I ask that because most Driving Under the Influence charges are misdemeanors,” said Davis.
Dincman responded that the board policy was rather broad concerning inquiries allowed and some organizations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have recently passed down some opinions on what questions are OK to ask an applicant. “Since your organization is a public and state agency, all employees and even vendors have to pass a level two back ground check screening,” she added.
“Over the last 20 years, 30 years plus. what we define as moral character has been narrowed, narrowed and narrowed by the courts,” Blanton told the board. He outlined cases in the past in the state concerning unwed pregnant teachers and teachers living with a significant other unmarried. “We have to be careful. We lost big in both of those cases. The prayer case in Santa Rosa County cost them close to $850,000. So, you have to be careful.”
He continued, “board members, you have to be really careful about being out in the community and telling people you are terminating people. You don’t have the authority to terminate someone. I’ve had individual board members sued over what they have said in public about trying to keep someone from being hired or having them terminated. Why? Because it was outside of her board member responsibilities. If three board members tell the superintendent to do something, that’s different than when one board member is trying to say something about individuals and if that comes before you later for a termination, that board member who has said that in the press or otherwise, they’re not going to get to vote on that.”
Board member Sharon Roberts asked about conformity of policy with other local school districts and Dincman responded that most were very similar. Blanton added, “You need to have at least one workshop a year on policy. When the general legislature leaves town, it will generally have some impact on your current policy. Consistency in policy and past practices are very important in litigation.”
Board member Faye Leddon requested a workshop on all policy for a future date. Roberts reiterated she had called for a workshop on human resources hiring practices and policy.
Walton County Superintendent Carlene Anderson said there is a person dedicated to changes in policy at the legislative level and those changes are outlined and given to the board at the end of the legislative session..
Anderson asked Blanton and Dincman if there was anything that needed to or could be done to the applicant question over past criminal offenses since this had caused an issue in the recent past.
Blanton responded that one item that stuck out to her was due to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, background checks through consumer agencies had to have a release signed and it needed to be separate from the employment application. The district currently uses the Florida Department of Law Enforcement(FDLE) to screen applicants and questions regarding felony issues are included in the application.
Blanton added when the law to fingerprint school employees started around 20 years ago, superintendents had to apply discretion according to how long ago the person had been charged and how that history would affect their current job position and their ability to do that job. “You have to make sure that whatever their crime was makes them not befitting to teach at your school and many times that is a judgment call. The issue there is many times a judgment call in Walton County may be different than Dade County,” he said.
Blanton expounded that the board members’ duty was to set requirements and salary for positions and then the superintendent’s job was to hire who they saw fit for those positions. “The problem is most of the general public does not understand board members are not the superintendent as well. What they think is you can get elected and you can have people appointed,you have people fired, you can have people moved and…you can’t, you can’t. You can’t do anything but create the position.”
He added that there were very few instances where a board can go outside of a superintendent’s recommendation, beyond approving or denying that recommendation and where personnel matters were concerned they had to show cause and the list that cause can fall under is very narrow.
“In Liberty County, they spent 10 percent of their budget, two years in a row, on legal fees. You cannot afford that. It is expensive and it’s not good for you or for watching out for the taxpayers’ dollars,” Blanton said.
By ALICIA LEONARD