County schools cut employees who have old felonies

A handful of Shenandoah County Public Schools employees with felony records lost their jobs this week as a result of a 2015 Virginia Supreme Court ruling.

Superintendent Mark Johnston confirmed Wednesday that the ruling affected five employees in good standing with the division and essentially rendered their contracts null and void.

“It was a very difficult thing for us because these are employees that certainly would not have otherwise drawn any attention in terms of having good employment with us,” Johnston said. “They were good employees. They had good evaluations. They were people we valued and it’s really a shame because if you’re convicted of a felony after you’re hired then the School Board gets a chance to say if they want to keep you employed or not and in this case there’s no question of how we needed to proceed.”

Johnston wouldn’t identify the employees by name or position but said some had worked for the division for many years. Johnston said these people admitted on their employment applications they had felony convictions.

“Certainly if we had had a choice we would not have done what we did,” Johnston said.

Johnson added that none of the felonies were related to anything involving sexual molestation or child abuse. He said he does not want “anyone to think anyone with that type of incident would ever have been considered for employment.”

Education officials learned at a state conference in December that divisions could not keep employees with felony convictions, Johnston said.

“We worked on it through the spring by beginning an audit, if you will, of our personnel records and through that process identified five individuals,” Johnston recalled. “We worked then through our attorneys because we’ve not had job-performance issues with these individuals … to try to determine if, in fact, there was a way around the way the code has been interpreted.”

Johnston described the code language as  “somewhat nebulous” because it covers any felony or “other offense related to a child” occurring prior to a person’s employment.

Attorneys advised the Shenandoah County School Board to abide by the interpretation of the code noted in the court ruling, Johnston said.

“We handled the board actions back when we did reappointments back in May and we, in talking with our employees, indicated that we were continuing to look at if there were ways around it certainly we were willing to take those steps,” Johnston said. “Unfortunately, there has been nothing that we have found that we believe enables us to not have taken the action we took.”

Some of the employees’ felony convictions occurred long before their employment with the division began and, in some cases, in their youth, Johnston said.

“We didn’t want to make it a big press event because these employees would need to be finding other employment and having a felony conviction when you’re 16 doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a good job when you’re much older than 16,” Johnston said.

In some cases, employees had their civil rights restored but the felony convictions remained on their records, Johnston noted.

The ruling renders the contracts of the affected employees invalid, Johnston said. So the contracts do not come before the School Board for renewal, he explained.

School officials plan to complete their research today and the employment of the affected individuals ceases the same day, Johnston said. Affected employees on a 10-month schedule already earned their salary for the year.

Whether or not the affected employees would lose what they paid into the Virginia Retirement System or if they could collect unemployment benefits remained uncertain. Johnston said he kept the School Board briefed in closed session at its meetings because it was a confidential, personnel matter.

Frederick County Public Schools officials recently completed a review of employees in relation to the ruling, Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy and communications, stated in an email Wednesday. The division had no contracted employees affected by the ruling nor did any such workers resign as a result, Edwards said.

Warren County Public Schools Superintendent L. Greg Drescher did not respond Wednesday to an email asking how the ruling affected his division’s staff.

Stephen R. Staples, superintendent of public instruction with the state Department of Education,  notified division superintendents in a May 20 memorandum of a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia that ultimately means school boards cannot hire an applicant for employment previously convicted of a felony. In upholding a lower court decision in the case of Deilia Butler v. Fairfax County School Board, the Supreme Court held that, because the appellant was convicted of a felony in 1992, she could not fulfill the statutory condition precedent to employment in 2006 and the Fairfax County School Board lacked the authority to hire her then. The Supreme Court also ruled that the board lacked the authority to make a continuing contract with her in 2007. The contract was rendered null and void.

The Supreme Court opinion cites a special Virginia law that requires every applicant for employment by a school board certify that he or she has not been convicted of a felony. Butler had been licensed by the Virginia Board of Education in 2000 and the teacher had truthfully disclosed on her application a felony conviction for a drug offense from 1992. The Fairfax County School Board hired Butler as a special-education teacher in 2006. She received a continuing contract in August 2007. An investigator in 2012 notified the county’s assistant superintendent for human resources of Butler’s felony conviction. The assistant superintendent determined that Butler’s felony conviction made her ineligible for employment and that her hiring by the school board had been made in error. The circuit court sided with the school division’s interpretation of the law.

“In Virginia, the supervision of schools is the exclusive responsibility of local school boards,” Staples memorandum states. “Accordingly, the Department of Education is providing information on the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia solely to inform divisions of the decision, so that they may consult board counsel and other advisers on all matters related to the employment of persons in your school division with felony convictions.”

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