Pittsburg school officials admit hiring process failed, thank student journalists

When officials at the Kansas Association of School Boards learned that a newly hired high school principal in Pittsburg, Kan., had resigned after student journalists uncovered discrepancies in her education and work credentials, they were surprised.

“In all my 20-year legal career, this was only the second time I have heard about something like this happening, so it is definitely an outlier,” said Donna Whiteman, assistant executive director of legal services for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

But Whiteman said she does understand how a school board could stumble into hiring a questionable candidate.

“In this current climate in Kansas, there is a major shortage of teachers and principals. Districts generally trying to hire the most qualified person want to hire them before someone else snatches them up,” Whiteman said. “So it is not unusual that all the checks are not done because they are trying to get them signed.”

Last month, the Pittsburg Community Schools board of directors hired Amy Robertson as principal of Pittsburg High School, but she resigned from the $93,000-a-year job Tuesday.

On Friday, the board admitted that its hiring process had failed and issued a statement saying it would review its screening procedures. It praised the six student journalists working on the school newspaper, The Booster Redux, whose story led to her resignation.

Superintendent Destry Brown said Wednesday that in the future, the district would include more investigation into an applicant’s background.

District officials said Robertson, who in her resume said she got her master’s and doctorate degrees years ago from Corllins University, was hired after a series of interviews.

Robertson has been living off and on for 19 years in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, running an education consulting firm. District leaders knew she did not have a license to teach or to be an administrator in a Kansas public school.

But Brown said he thought she was the “best fit” for the school. Robertson also agreed to take the necessary classes, tests and apply for a state license while on the job.

That’s not uncommon for new hires from out of state, who serve in an unofficial capacity until their license is approved.

The high school journalists, who set out to write a routine welcome-to-Pittsburg story on the new principal, used simple online research techniques and found that Corllins University, its accreditation status and reputation appeared shady.

They found articles warning that the university might be a diploma mill and was not accredited by a recognized accreditation agency. Corllins’ website didn’t work, and the Better Business Bureau warned about problems with the school, saying, “The true physical address of Corllins University is unknown.”

State education officials pointed out to be a principal in Kansas, applicants must have a degree from an accredited college or university.

Also, “you must have a professional license and five years of experience” teaching or as an administrator in an accredited public school, said Ann Bush, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Education.

Applicants are hired by a school board. Once they pass a criminal background check, they are approved by the state to get their license.

As part of that process, the state also does a general review of credentials. Transcripts must come from an accredited college or university, but state officials said they merely look for a college’s official markings on the transcript document to assure it’s not a fake.

State officials don’t do deep checks into each institution’s status or an applicant’s work experience. That’s up to the local district.

Brown said the district did not vet Robertson’s credentials. Instead, it planned to rely on the Department of Education. But the state said it never received transcripts for Robertson, and thus never even started the licensing process.

How a principal is hired is pretty much “up to the local school district,” said Whiteman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

For school boards, there is a general process that includes application review, interviews and some level of checking of references and into the credentials an applicant says qualifies them for the job.

Whiteman said applications should be screened to weed out those who either don’t have the credentials or don’t fit the job description or the vision of the district. Initial interviews are done, and the pool is narrowed further.

There are then more interviews with a panel that can include teachers, administrators, students and school board members.

Brown said that for the most part, Pittsburg followed that process. However, he said, it did not dig into Robertson’s credentials even when it could not find proof that Corllins University had been accredited when she attended the school.

In an email, Robertson told The Kansas City Star she received her master’s degree from Corllins in 1994 and her doctorate in 2010, and at that time “there was no issue” with accreditation.

Pittsburg’s board statement said its “policy requires teachers and administrators to hold degrees from accredited institutions of higher learning. It also requires candidates to possess or be able to quickly acquire appropriate licensure from the State of Kansas.”

“The board relies upon the recommendations from district administrators when approving hires. However, the final responsibility for every hire rests with the board. It’s clear now, in this instance, our process failed.”

The statement went on to say; “We thank the students of The Booster Redux for the role they played in bringing this situation to light.

“We admire both their original reporting and the manner in which they have handled the national attention their story has earned.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc