Delays in establishing an online database mean Maine parents are starting another school year without a way to find out whether every employee in their child’s school has passed a criminal background check.

The state is overhauling the teacher certification process, moving from an archaic paper-based system that was error-ridden and plagued by delays to an online system that will be open to the public and will automatically notify district officials if there is an employee who does not have credentials.

The paper system has meant parents didn’t know whether every employee who works with Maine students – from teachers to bus drivers – has passed a criminal background check or is properly credentialed.

The certification system came under increased scrutiny last year after an education technician in SAD 6 was charged with sexually assaulting a student. The charges were later dismissed , but during the investigation the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald learned that he did not have any credentials, even though he worked in two separate school districts.

The new online system was supposed to launch July 1 but still isn’t ready, officials said.

Since summer is the crunch time for certifying teachers, Maine Department of Education Commissioner Robert Hasson took the unprecedented step of issuing a first-ever one-year extension to about 5,000 people holding existing certifications that were due to expire this summer.

The new online certification system went live internally in mid-August for testing, and is expected to be fully functional by mid-October, officials said.

“This is a first-time endeavor for the department. We are diligently working through the development of many new processes necessary to make it happen, as well as the unexpected delays that are oftentimes inevitable when taking on such an extensive system change,” the department told district officials in explaining the delay.

In the meantime, the department is still using the old paper-based system to continue credentialing for all new prospective employees, such as recent graduates, people completing their probationary status or people coming from out of state who want to work in Maine.

Angel Laredo, who oversees the certification section, said about 1,000 of those requests are being processed, and the current backlog is four to six weeks.

Laredo noted that at this time last year, the backlog was 16 weeks.

“We have really gone forward,” he said. “This is a really busy time. Right now we are going at full speed here.”

ERRORS USING CURRENT DATABASES

Under state law and Department of Education rules, all public school employees must have proper authorization for their specific job category. As a first step, all candidates for a school job, from janitor to superintendent, must be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check.

The Press Herald learned that because of the paper-based certification system, the state could not provide a list of all public school employees in Maine who lack proper credentials – by comparing a list of all school employees with a separate list of all people holding credentials. Officials said those lists were kept in separate databases that couldn’t be cross-referenced with each other.

Officials tried for months to create that list but ultimately would not release it, saying that internal reviews of the list found errors – including credentialed educators showing up as being uncredentialed – and they couldn’t tell how many employees were working without current criminal background checks.

The delay at the Department of Education in issuing certifications left local district officials playing a waiting game, with employees working in classrooms with only temporary credentials or working as substitute teachers while they waited for approval from the state. Some districts that won’t hire people without credentials may end up losing candidates who can be hired more quickly at another district that allows them to start work on temporary credentials.

The old process requires the local school district or employee to submit an application to the Department of Education, where it is reviewed and either approved or rejected. An application can be rejected for a variety of reasons, ranging from serious, such as a criminal conviction, to the mundane, such as failing to pay a filing fee or attaching a transcript.

However, the department does not notify the school district about whether its applicant has failed or passed the review. It is up to the district to log into the department’s database and check for itself if potential hires have been rejected, and why. Because of the paperwork delays, that can take weeks or months after the initial application was filed.

The department said the new online system will fix those shortcomings.

MAINE GRADED ‘F’ ON SCREENING

Maine is one of 10 states that do not yet have an online system for the public to verify and review the credentials of public school teachers, according to a USA Today report published in February. The yearlong investigation reviewed teacher screening processes nationwide and found “a patchwork system of laws and regulations – combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information-sharing between states and school districts.”

Maine got an “F” from USA Today on its screening process, with the report noting that despite strong state-level screenings before licensing teachers, Maine has weak mandatory reporting of teacher misconduct, doesn’t share misconduct data with other states and has no information online about disciplinary actions.

Laredo said one of the key features of the new computerized system is that any member of the public will be able to put in the name of a school employee and see his or her credential information. The database will also have information on other people who work with children in the school system, such as bus drivers, coaches and parent volunteers, who under stater law must be fingerprinted and have criminal background checks before they can be credentialed to work with children.

Laredo said the new certification system will “talk” to the department’s internal database, called NEO, which lists all employees. There will be a daily check to make sure all teachers and school workers in the NEO system are also approved in the certification database, Laredo said.

If someone appears in NEO as an employee but not in the credentialing database, an email is automatically generated and sent to the district’s superintendent and the credential coordinator, prompting them to resolve the issue. In the past, it was up to district officials to check a state database to see if a person’s credentials were valid.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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