Muscogee County School Board re-votes, approves hiring of board member's daughter amid more controversy

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 21, 2013 

The Muscogee County School District administration building is at 2960 Macon Road.

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

A month of controversy about hiring a board member's daughter as a teacher in the Muscogee County School District ended with more controversy at Monday night's meeting.

For the second straight week, a resident stood in front of the school board and accused the administration of hiring District 3 representative A.J. Senior's daughter as political payback in exchange for Senior's vote to retain the district's law firm.

Last month, Senior broke a state law when she was part of the unanimous vote to approve the hiring of her daughter, Jonai, as an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Fort Middle School. Jonai was among the new employees up for approval. Senior, who joined the board in January, apologized and said it was a rookie mistake not to recuse herself from the vote.

Monday night, the board approved the employees again. This time, they took two votes: first for Jonai alone, then for the other new employees. After the board debated whether the properly legal move would be recusal or abstention, Senior recused herself from the vote on her daughter. Both votes were unanimous.

As board member Pat Hugley Green of District 1 noted, the brouhaha amounted to only a formality, because the administration, not the board, hires the district's teachers, but this issue still was discussed intensely.

During the public comment period, Nathan Smith said Jonai wasn't certified when she started teaching in August and was selected over three fully qualified applicants.

Senior and the administration have denied any quid pro quo. In response to the Ledger-Enquirer's questions about the hiring, and in an explanation to the board Monday night, the administration outlined the following process:

Among the more than 2,600 MCSD teachers, 41 have been hired under a provisional certification, including 13 who started this school year. They have 90 days to complete the requirements for full certification. MCSD provisionally certified teachers have always obtained certification, and usually within 3-4 weeks of their employment, district communications director Valerie Fuller said in an email.

Fort Middle School principal Sonja Coaxum had two English language arts positions to fill in July and chose to interview five applicants out of 28 that were certified or "demonstrated through documentation their ability to be certified," Fuller said in the email.

In her explanation to the board, Kathy Tessin, the district's human resources chief, said the principals almost always make the hiring decisions at their schools. "The only time, unfortunately, we get involved in staffing a specific vacancy is when we have those incidents due to enrollment issues and displacement we find another home for a contractual teacher."

Tessin said Coaxum was "zooming in on" improving her school's eighth-grade writing scores.

"Of the five that she interviewed," Tessin said, "she found two candidates that she felt met the needs of the students at this time. The candidate in question offered a lot of content that other applicants did not offer."

For middle grades certification in Georgia, teachers need only 15 credit hours in their subject area. As an English major, however, Jonai had 72 hours. "She also had extensive writing experience through extracurricular and other activities," Tessin said.

After conferring with her lead teacher, who separately interviewed the five candidates, Coaxum chose to hire Senior and another applicant as "the best to round out the team they already had in place and offer what the kids of Fort needed," Tessin said.

Tessin said she and superintendent David Lewis reviewed the process Coaxum used and "could not fault her judgment. Therefore, we felt what she was doing was in the best interest of the achievement of the kids. We saw no undue influence."

Provisionally certified teachers earn a lower salary than those that are fully certified, Fuller said in the email. Jonai's salary is $30,755.

Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, said she struggled with this issue but decided to approve the hiring after Lewis and Tessin answered her questions.

"What it came down to for me is was she qualified," Williams said. "And the answer came back unequivocally yes. No. 2, do we have a nepotism clause that prevents this from happening? No, we don't. Is there a process in place to allow this type of a hire, a provisional certificate? Yes, we do. Did she follow that process? Yes, she did.

"… I know Ms. Coaxum, and I've been at her school -- it's a tight ship -- and she would never hire somebody that she didn't feel was bringing what she needed to her school."

Lewis noted that the district's 2013 Outstanding First-Year Teacher, Dominique Donaldson of Dawson Elementary, was hired with a provisional certificate.

Green criticized the critics when she said, "It's unfortunate when we have people who are waiting on the gotcha moment or orchestrate a gotcha moment just to embarrass someone or harass someone or just to be a critic who wants to, all in one breath, quote our renowned community activist Dr. Martin Luther King, then Scripture, then speak evil on someone's name, some young person who has done everything they are supposed to do."

Williams defended the board critics.

"We have something called freedom of speech," she said. "We're elected officials. We put ourselves up here for criticism. We're a fair target for a public who feels they want to question something we've done. I think when a member of the public comes forward, no matter who they want to quote and what questions they want to ask or whatever their motivation is, we should not call them out and chastise them for exercising their right."

Senior thanked Tessin for her explanation. "You told me some things about my daughter's qualifications I was not aware of. I was even more proud. My daughter's very bright. She did not need any help."

PARENT MEETING, COMMUNITY FORUM

The Muscogee County School District will conduct two public gatherings next week:

• Title I Parent Committee meeting Oct. 28 from 6-7 p.m. in the Columbus Public Library auditorium, 3000 Macon Road.

Topics will include: Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, what every parent needs to know; Parent Portal, how to monitor your child's progress; understanding the Flexible Learning Plan.

For more information, call Tammy Pope, the MCSD Title I parent coordinator, at 706-748-2104.

• Community forum, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. in Baker Middle School, 1215 Benning Drive.

The district calls these periodic forums VOICE -- Value Opinions, Involvement and Concerns in Education. To submit a question before the forum, email communications@muscogee.k12.ga.us or call 706-748-2034.

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