Concord administrators who lack credentials are only ones in Merrimack County

  • Concord School District Building Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/19/2019 3:52:09 PM

Every school district administrator is properly credentialed in Merrimack County except for the top two working in the capital city, who are among the highest paid in the state.

A Monitor analysis of 99 superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals and business administrators in Merrimack County found only two – Jack Dunn and Donna Palley – lacked the proper credentials for their jobs.

Palley was the fifth highest-paid assistant superintendent in the state out of 48, making $130,744 last year, according to Department of Education records from 2018-19. Dunn ranked as the fifth highest-paid business administrator out of 91 during that time, making $119,645.

Additionally, a former assistant principal at Rundlett Middle School, Heather Barker, who left the district this summer after making $111,070 in 2018 to take a job as director of student services for the Merrimack School District, was not credentialed for the 12 years she worked in Concord. Barker became properly credentialed only after leaving the Concord School District on July 4, according to state data.

The Concord School District Human Resources Department is currently completing an audit of the district, where 388 educators are employed. It has not been completed yet, and therefore it is not yet known if any other educators in the district are lacking credentials.

“We hope to report to the board within the next two or three weeks,” said Concord School District Human Resources Director Larry Prince.

The news of Concord administrators’ lack of credentialing followed the board’s suspension of Superintendent Terri Forsten, who was credentialed to have her job. The revelation started a greater conversation in the Department of Education about the purpose of educator credentials, which are obtained by educators at the administrative level after they pursue higher education programs. They are renewed every three years and require administrators to undergo continuous professional development.

On Oct. 4, State Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut sent out an email to district superintendents reminding them of the consequences of staff members under their supervision not being properly credentialed. The Department of Education can revoke the credential of a superintendent “who knowingly employs or continues the active employment of an educator who does not hold a valid New Hampshire teaching credentials,” according to state education bylaws.

“Recently, we have learned that several top education administrators held themselves out as having certain credentials that they did not hold,” Edelblut wrote. “It is the responsibility of school superintendents to ensure that, where required by regulation, all educators in their employ hold proper and up-to-date credentials from the New Hampshire Department of Education.”

It is the job of local districts, not the state, to ensure credentials are in order, Edelblut said.

“I am writing to encourage you to ensure that, where called for in rule, educators in your district have up-to-date credentials necessary for their jobs,” Edelblut wrote. “The New Hampshire Department of Education does not make your hiring decisions, nor do we audit school districts for compliance. That remains your responsibility.”

Department of Education spokesperson Grant Bosse said he could not say whether the department plans to pursue any punitive action against Palley, Dunn or Barker.

“If the board or the commissioner ever proceeds with a formal case, that would be made public,” he said. “If we get to that point, we’ll put out a statement.”

However, at the same time as the commissioner has been warning of the possible consequences for employing educators without the proper credentials, Edelblut also publicly questioned the value of credentialing teachers and administrators.

In an op-ed published in the Monitor on Thursday, Edelblut wrote the purpose of the New Hampshire credentialing system is to validate an individual’s skill to perform a job. In the case of Concord, it seems that educators were performing their jobs well, despite lacking credentials, Edelblut said.

“In theory, there should be a very clear distinction between the performance and capability of one who holds a credential and one that does not, so that the differences are obvious,” he said. “The recent developments in Concord call into question whether those hurdles we ask educators to jump over to receive a credential effectively distinguish their ability to do their job or not.”

He noted that Palley, who has been employed in the district for more than 30 years in different capacities, was recognized by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association in 2018 “for her exemplary work.”

He also complimented Dunn’s work in the district since he took the job in 2012, after serving on the Concord School Board.

“Anyone who has worked with this business administrator will attest that he is one of the best in the state, bringing strong financial and business competency to the job,” Edelblut wrote.

He said Barker “served the students and community well” during her time as assistant principal at Rundlett.

“If there’s no distinction in the output from someone who holds a credential and someone that does not, it calls into question the validity of the credentialing system itself,” Edelblut wrote. “If the credentials are so vital, how come no parents or community members were able to distinguish between individuals who hold a credential and those that do not? If the credentials are so vital, how come non-credential holders were recognized for their exemplary work? These are questions that we should all be interested in working on.”

He said it’s time to revisit the standards that the State Board of Education has set for certification.

“Do we need pages and pages on inputs to determine if someone is worth hiring? Or can we give school districts, superintendents, and school boards broader flexibility to hire the right person for their school?” he said. “I’d like to see a system that rewards experience, ability, and performance more than a long list of qualifications that narrows the pool of potential candidates.”

In Bow, that thinking resonated with Superintendent Dean Cascadden. At an upcoming school board meeting, the district will change the title of an administrator slightly to fit credentialing standards, in light of everything that’s been going on in Concord, Cascadden said.

Bow has an “Assistant Superintendent for Business Administration,” which is held by Duane Ford, who is credentialed as a business administrator – not an assistant superintendent. Cascadden said the district changed Ford’s title from business administrator to assistant superintendent for business administration a few years ago, when Dunbarton joined the district and Ford gained more responsibility.

Cascadden said Bow has three principals in the district that hold a superintendent certification and could fill in if he was ever on leave. However, Ford is usually the person in the district office that people turn to when Cascadden isn’t around.

“He may not be credentialed as an assistant, but in practice, when I’m not in, people go to Duane with questions,” he said. “He’s the one that stands in for me.”

Cascadden ​noted that there are avenues for people to obtain alternatives to certification and get a job in education even if they don’t have teaching experience. For example, individuals can attain a “statement of eligibility” in elementary and secondary teaching areas with a bachelor’s degree.

“You have people with the statement of eligibility but they don’t have the background and history to do the job, and other people, with years of teaching experience where their certification is slightly off, suddenly it’s like, they’re totally unqualified,” he said. “Some people are making a much bigger deal of this than they need to.”

In Concord, for some parents, it’s a matter of a confidence in district officials. Two administrators in the Concord School District – Concord High Principal Tom Sica and Forsten – are currently on leave, after the Concord School Board received an independent investigator’s report on how administrators handled reports made by students raising concerns about a teacher’s conduct. The teacher, Howie Leung, was arrested in April and is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a Rundlett student starting in the 2014-15 school year.

Palley was made “acting superintendent” of the district on Sept. 27.

The first line of Palley’s job qualifications is to “hold or be eligible to hold NH Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent certification,” according to a copy of her job description. She lacked the certification for eight years.

“I can’t work in my job for eight years and get paid $134,000 a year without taking the proper time to go to school, to learn what I need to learn to do my job properly,” parent Andrea Golen said at the most recent school board meeting. “Taxpayers should not be paying for your salary when you didn’t even take the time to get your credentials.”

Palley is set to make $133,359 this school year.

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