Political fighting slowing teacher investigations

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Roughly 400 certified teachers are waiting for complaints against them to be fully investigated, as the Arizona Board of Education’s investigators work through a backlog that has persisted for years.

Making matters worse is the public fight between the Board of Education and the state superintendent of public instruction. It has resulted in the investigators being housed in the state executive tower, three blocks away from the education building, where their files are located.

“They have to sign in. They’re required to wear visitor badges. They have to be escorted,” said Christine Thompson, who is the executive director of the state Board of Education. She also supervises the investigators.

At the heart of the dispute is who should be overseeing the investigators: the board or the schools superintendent.

“They are employees of the department, but for some reason, the board doesn’t seem to think so,” said Diane Douglas, who is the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The dispute is in litigation. This week, state legislative leaders sent a letter to Douglas and the Board, asking them to come to an agreement that will allow the investigators unfettered access to the files they need to work through the backlog.

The board wants Douglas to allow the investigators remote access to the files.

“We’re starting to get a handle on (the backlog) now, and I think if we had remote access to our offices, I think that we would be able to even more expeditiously deal with those issues,” said Thompson.

“The investigative employees of the Department of Education need to move back to their assigned work location,” said Douglas, who contends that one of the reasons for the backlog is a lack of supervision over the investigators.

CBS 5 Investigates obtained a list of the 400 teachers who are under investigation, and whose cases are listed as “open.” The accusations against the teachers range from sexual assault to contract problems. Some of the teachers will eventually be cleared. Others will have their certification revoked. But they are all in a state of limbo until the cases are closed out.

Among the teachers whose cases are still listed as open and who still have valid teacher certifications are:

  • Richard Knight, who was convicted of sexual exploitation of minor. He is currently in prison.
  • Ryan Roth, who was charged with six counts of sexual assault. He is awaiting trial.
  • Hui Fitzgerald, who was convicted of prostitution. She is serving probation.

Other teachers, like Allen Smith, who was cited for marijuana possession, but whose charges were dismissed, are likely to be cleared to teach again, but are waiting years to make it through the process.

“I’ve interviewed with several positions as an administrator, but unfortunately I’m not able to take those positions because of my certification troubles,” said Smith as he spoke to the Professional Practice Advisory Committee earlier this month. The committee voted to recommend Smith be allowed to teach again.

Smith and the others on the list are still certified teachers, but their finger print clearance cards have been suspended, so they cannot work at schools. CBS 5 Investigates identified several teachers on the list who are working as tutors.

Under the current law, members of the public are not informed if a teacher is under investigation. Therefore, if they check on a tutor’s background, they may only see if the person is certified as a teacher.

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