Teachers raise questions about due process in educator ethics proceedings

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent activity in the Jason Brower case.

Noah Connor had an interview on April 22 for a teaching job in an Idaho school district. The day before, he decided to check with the State Department of Education to see which continuing education courses he would need to update his credentials.  

That’s when he discovered his K-8 teaching certificate had been suspended.

“I was shocked,” Connor told the 18 professional standards commissioners, who govern educator discipline, at their June meeting.  Connor had been disciplined over allegations that he breached a teaching contract. He says that he never got the multiple written notices that the PSC sent to an old address.

Because he didn’t respond to the PSC’s notice of investigation or requests to present his own evidence in the case, Connor was considered in “default.” The allegations against him were admitted as fact.

Two-thirds of the 17 educators disciplined by the PSC this year have been considered in “default” because they didn’t participate in the commission’s investigation. Educators can decide not to contest or respond to the PSC’s findings against them.

But in at least two default cases this year, teachers say they did not receive notice of the discipline proceedings and therefore didn’t have a chance to defend themselves. They’ve raised concerns about the PSC’s process, which relies on physical mail for notification. 

“I had no idea of the administrative complaint that was mailed to a house I had not lived in since June of 2019,” Connor told commissioners at the hearing. “This is my livelihood. This is my career. A simple email or phone call that would have enlightened me of this issue, would have been fantastic.”

PSC Director Lisa Colón Durham said this is the first time in at least a decade that educators have raised concerns about the default process. 

The PSC uses snail-mail notifications

The PSC is a branch of the State Department of Education, made up of educators from across Idaho. In the past few years, the commission has reviewed 60 to 80 complaints a year dealing with allegations that an educator violated Idaho’s educator code of conduct. Commissioners opened investigations into about half of those complaints. 

When the PSC’s executive committee decides to investigate a complaint, commission staffers mail a series of letters to the educator being investigated. They also subpoena the school district for documents related to the complaint.  

Notices go to the latest address that the SDE has on file from a teacher’s most recent certificate application or background check. If a teacher moves, but leaves a forwarding address, the PSC will send documents to that forwarding address. The commission also sends certified mail, which requires a signature, and asks for receipts if an educator signs for their notice.

“We really want the respondent to participate in these code of ethics violations. We encourage it, we make sure we have staff that can explain the process and give the opportunity to provide their side,” Colón Durham said.

The commission does not track down an educator if they have not signed for receiving the PSC documents. It’s not unusual for Annette Schwab, the staffer who sends out PSC communication, to get a stack of returned mail that says an educator no longer lives at the address she’s sent letters to, she testified at Connor’s hearing.

“If it just comes back as ‘undeliverable, person not here,’ then we don’t make an attempt any longer,” Schwab said.

Connor said the state had both his phone number and email address on file, from his latest application for a teaching certificate, but commission staff didn’t reach out through either means when his mail came back undeliverable. 

Schwab said she doesn’t have the time to call and email educators who haven’t updated their address in the SDE’s system. Colón Durham said the SDE is reviewing its procedures to make sure that certified teachers know they have to keep the department appraised of their most recent address.

“It’s important that we ensure that our addresses are up to date, especially with our licensing bodies,” Colón Durham said.

American Falls superintendent Randy Jensen said it’s unrealistic to expect educators to update the SDE every time they move homes or districts.

“Who would even think to do that?”  he said. 

One of Jensen’s staffers, federal programs director Jason Brower, was disciplined by the PSC in a default proceeding this year. Brower was investigated over concerns he double-dipped while teaching a dual-credit class through Idaho State University, getting paid for two courses while he was only teaching one. The alleged violations happened at Marsh Valley School District, but Brower has since moved to the American Falls district, and says he did not receive any written communications from the PSC about his case. 

Brower was unaware that the commission suspended his teaching certificates, pending an ethics course, until EdNews emailed him about the case, Jensen said. 

“If you’re going to suspend someone’s license, or you’re going to consider suspending someone’s license, in Idaho we owe it to our teachers to take a few minutes to find out where they are,” Jensen said. “We’re only talking about a couple of minutes. If they need more staff in their office to do that, let’s hire another secretary.”

Connor was the first educator to raise concerns about notification process

Default cases happen frequently — in more than 40% of cases since 2019, according to an EdNews analysis — but Colón Durham says Connor was the first to raise concerns with the PSC about notifications in the default process. Default cases happen for a number of reasons, Colon Durham said, and the PSC does not track how often they occur because the commission couldn’t get in touch with a teacher.

Connor was disciplined in January of 2021, and his teaching certificate suspended for a year, when the commission found he breached his contract with the Plummer-Worley school district. After he spoke with the PSC in June, commissioners voted to revise his discipline in the case. 

After starting the 2019-20 school year in Plummer-Worley, Connor said he got into a housing bind. Faced with the prospect of living in his car during a North Idaho winter, Connor resigned only months into his teaching contract and moved to California. Connor’s resignation was not accepted by the Plummer-Worley school board, according to PSC documents, and he was disciplined for failing to fulfill the terms of his contract.  

“We didn’t have that specific information before, because we didn’t get a response to the complaint,” Schwab said. “We didn’t know any particulars, all we got was the school district saying ‘he breached his contract.'”

Commissioners worked with Connor to change the outcome in his case. In lieu of a one-year suspension, PSC members decided to allow Connor to take an ethics course to get his certificate reinstated, and to issue him a letter of reprimand.

“This is the first (case) that has been brought to your attention where a person did not get service. I would say 11-12 years is a pretty good track record,” said Robert Berry, a Deputy Attorney General who represented the PSC at Connor’s hearing. “The state, and Ms. Schwab, are continually trying to update the system to track educators to make sure that we know where they are so they can get appropriate notice.” 

Brower, whose suspension was issued in June, also plans to ask for reconsideration. He denied allegations that he purposefully mislead ISU into paying him for two dual-credit courses when he only taught one, and called the complaint one-sided. He discussed the two-section setup openly with ISU, he said, and afterward paid back some of the funds.

ISU spokeswoman Emily Frandsen confirmed in an email to EdNews that ISU administrators were aware of the situation before the PSC started investigating, and that Brower was “cooperative in responding to the concerns.”

“I look forward to working with the Professional Standards Commission, and the opportunity of due process,” Brower said in an email. “I am sure that once all of the facts are presented another outcome will be pursued.”

Update: At a July hearing, a PSC panel voted to set aside Brower’s default order. He will  be allowed to present his side of the discipline case. During the hearing, Schwab confirmed that mailed notifications were sent to an old address of Brower’s, and returned to the commission as undeliverable. SDE staff did not attempt to call Brower and notify him of the discipline proceedings. Brower had not corrected the outdated address that the SDE had on file when he submitted recent fingerprint cards with the American Falls school district, nor had he informed the SDE of many address changes since living at the old address the state had on file. 

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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