By ALICIA LEONARD
The Oct. 1 Walton County School Board(WCSB) meeting was overshadowed by a resident’s complaint over the hiring of a part-time teacher on contract that had been arrested and charged with driving under the influence (DUI) and cocaine possession on Dec. 12, 2012.
The board opened the meeting by passing the the opening agenda before them and adopting the minutes unanimously.
When WCSB Chairman Mark Davis called for public comments, south Walton resident Mary Nielson stepped up to to speak to the board.
Nielson said she had become very disconcerted and concerned over hearing the past arrest information concerning Okaloosa resident Brittney A. Bowman, a contracted part-time instructor, hired by the board during the Sept. 3 meeting to handle an overflow of math classes at South Walton High School.
“I feel there is a breakdown or a lack of propriety in how one takes the application and the references and the data and the search from the background material and what you do with that background material,” Nielson said. She added, “I don’t feel the school board and the education system in Walton County should be running an experimental substance abuse rehab center situation. This lady was arrested in 2012 and hired in less than nine or 10 months after and is on probation and I question the propriety of that.”
Nielson continued asking about the hiring practices and background checks that go into the hiring practice. “I as a citizen and taxpayer am concerned,” she told the board. “I look to you to solve this issue so it will not happen again,” she added before stepping away from the microphone.
Consent agenda items were next before the board and the board approved the consent agenda unanimously.
Under action agenda items, contracts for new hires were taken individually. Board member Sharon Roberts asked that the board be provided with more information on new contract employees and hires. “We put faith in you that you will bring us competent candidates and I’m not sure that we can put that faith in you and that will occur,” Roberts said, addressing Walton County School Superintendent Carlene Anderson.
Board member Dennis Wallace commented “I think we are getting on a slippery slope time-wise on this board and I’m not defending anybody, but when I got elected to the board I got a packet from the state of Florida and there was a little do and don’t section in the manual. And, the biggest don’t was over and over in there was not to get involved at the board level on day-to-day personnel matters. I don’t want us to take this one incident that I think did slip through the cracks and make this board into a full-time review for personnel decisions.”
Davis asked if there was a background check done on Bowman and Human Resource Director Sonya Alford responded that one had been done and all certifications needed were in line as well before her hiring.
Roberts responded and asked board attorney Ben Holley to help devise a policy for background information to be brought to the board, “criminal or otherwise.”
Holley responded that all contracts required a background check and level two screening prior to hiring.
Anderson responded that all potential hires go through a background check and meet the requirements for employee eligibility.
Bowman had a valid teaching certificate, passed a drug test and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement performed her background check.
Davis expressed frustration over not being able to hire coaches that were also teachers. “There is some lost opportunity for mentoring when they are not regular employees. I’m frustrated by it.”
Anderson that the board had been hiring contracted coaches since 2005 because they had found it very difficult to find coaches that were good teachers or teachers that were good coaches and were concerned academics would suffer.
Davis responded he thought there were qualified coaches/teachers but they needed to be sought out.
New hire contracts were approved unanimously by the board. The board then moved to approve 5-0 a Federal Impact Aid application.
Up next on the agenda was personnel recommendations and the board approved them unanimously. Next up was the resignation submitted by Bowman. She requested a waiver on the 30 day waiting period usually given to contractors when resigning. The board approve the resignation and termination on Bowman’s contract unanimously.
Bowman was sentenced to community service, probation and enrolled in a diversion program, pre-trial, for the cocaine charge. She pleaded no contest to the DUI charge. The cocaine charges will be dropped if she completes the program.
Under board comments, Roberts asked Holley again for help devising a protocol to screen applicants more thoroughly. Wallace expounded on his earlier comments, thanking Nielson for coming and speaking to the board, “We appreciate public comments. We very seldom get them. I’m always kind of mystified that we don’t get much public input. I want you to understand I’m not shirking duty but people really misunderstand the role of a board member as it pertains to personnel. We have recommendations made to us that are put through filters that we just have to hope that everything is done properly. There’s going to be an aberration every now and then, but it is not the board’s role to be involved in day-to-day personnel decisions once they have been through a very detailed process to come to us. The same way they don’t call me up and ask what’s for lunch. We will try and tighten our procedures up, but it is not the boards purview to be involved in day-to-day decisions.”
Roberts said she thought Wallace was partially addressing her and responded that she and the board were not brought complete or adequate information on the Bowman hire to make a good decision.
Wallace responded, “My only point is I can’t be called by Sonya every time she’s doing personnel reviews to come down and look over her shoulder.”
Board member Gail Smith suggested the board have a workshop to review the protocols and decide if there needs to be changes in hiring protocols or if this incident was indeed “a quirk.” Smith added that the only time she gets to speak with other board members is in meetings or workshops to keep the Sunshine laws from being violated. “It’s clear to me there is some confusion that needs to be quantified.”
Davis agreed with Smith’s suggestion as did board member Faye Leddon. More discussion on items to be included in the workshop were discussed between the board and Holley before Anderson gave her closing comments.
“I represent and manage approximately 1,200 employees. We are the largest business in the county and this is done on a daily basis. Hiring multiple new employees, every year, we make sure that all employees meet the criteria and qualification for employment before they are brought to you. We missed one piece of information on one employee in the nine years that I have offered recommendations to you. One piece of information on one employee in nine years. Is it critical? Absolutely, because we are dealing with lives of children. It’s extremely critical.”
Anderson continued, “When we hired this contract employee, she met all of the qualifications for employment. The one piece that was missing, because it was not posted on the web site for Professional Practices, and we don’t usually say, well, let’s call on each one of them. We depend on them to post any person that is under review and it was not posted. You want to say we missed it? We checked, but it wasn’t there. It was later discovered by me asking Mrs. Alford to call professional practices and they were still holding her certificate under review. Only by going a step further. Who would have known? However, because she is still under review I am bound to confidentiality and I am not allowed to speak on any other information concerning that hire. I’m trying to speak in generalities because of the process we go through.”
Anderson added, “Our staff does an excellent job and I applaud their efforts.” Anderson agreed that a workshop on the hiring practice would help increase the boards knowledge of the process.
Roberts responded that the information had not been overlooked, but was something that had been marked on an application and withheld from the board and she was worried there might be more employees with background information the board was unaware of.
Anderson responded, “If you are unaware of it, I am unaware of it. One employee in nine years.”
Davis spoke up and asked for a motion to adjourn. The board approved the motion to adjourn unanimously.
School workshop and meetings dates are as follows: Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. a workshop on the Affordable Care Act. At 4:30 p.m. a workshop on food services and at 5 p.m. a regular board meeting. The workshop on hiring practices is scheduled for Nov. 5 at 4 p.m.
To see more on meetings, events and a newly designed district web site, go to http://www.walton.k12.fl.us.