The owners of Education Services Inc. were hoping to lure teachers and administrators back to school following their retirement.
It was to be a win-win situation for teacher-starved districts and retirees who normally would be required to wait a year before returning to the classroom.
With a standard fee of 10 percent of the employee’s salary, ESI owners — Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District Superintendent John Tavasci, C-OC Business Manager Sue Bring and former C-OC Assistant Superintendent Dave Osborn — were poised for profits.
But Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano issued an opinion that formally put the brakes on ESI's leasing of administrators and teachers, saying, "Nowhere do the statutes grant governing boards express authority to hire teachers through private agencies."
According to Napolitano, the responsibility and duty for hiring quality teachers lies solely on the shoulders of school board members and cannot be abdicated to "an uninterested and unaccountable private third party."
"I respectfully disagree with her opinion," says Tavasci, who had forged ahead with the ESI concept by contracting with the C-OC District for 10 employees and was currently waiting approval from Camp Verde and Chinle Districts for the employment of certified staff.
ESI’s pursuit of contracts came following the favorable opinions acquired from the law firms of Magnum, Wall, Stoops & Warden in Flagstaff and Udall, Shumway, Blackhurst, Allen & Lyons of Mesa.
Attorney Chris Thomas of the Arizona School Board’s Association clarifies the AG’s opinion saying it hinged on the powers entrusted to school board members, "Although governing boards do have the authority, was it a delegable duty? The opinion said it was not," says Thomas.
As a result of Napolitano’s opinion, C-OC school board members offered new contracts last Friday to eight teachers employed at the district through ESI.
Unfortunately, Dr. Daniel Bright teachers David Lieder and Margie Stevens, as well as Cottonwood Middle School instructor Bob Cunningham, retired less then a year ago and are not eligible to return to full-time status with the district.
Lieder’s students however, have no cause for worry. The veteran teacher says he will continue his role at the head of his class through the year 2001.
"Those teachers can come back with a short-term contract so they can work and not jeopardize their retirement," Tavasci explains.
Lieder says he will finish up the school year by working 19.5 hours a week at half-time pay and the remaining hours as a volunteer.
Under a new law passed by the Arizona State Legislature, teachers but not administrators, may resume their teaching careers following a full year of retirement without disrupting benefits provided by the Arizona State Retirement System.
Regarding the AG’s opinion, Lieder feels it may have a detrimental impact on a school district’s ability to attract retirees back to the classroom.
"If there’s a teacher shortage," he says, "they are not going to get many of those teachers back after a year. Many of those teachers are going to find a different source of employment and they won’t be back in the classroom."
Yavapai County Superintendent Paul Street agrees that more creative approaches have to be explored to solve the anticipated teacher shortages.
"I don’t think ESI is a bad concept," explains Street who this year has been inundated with requests for emergency teaching and substitute certificates due to many districts' inability to fill teaching positions.
Although he believes ESI may be one solution to the teaching shortage, Street nonetheless is uncomfortable with the C-OC District’s dealings with the employment agency.
"I have to look at the public perception," explains Street. "If the superintendent and business manager of a company are doing business with their own district where they are currently employed, it raises eyebrows."
In May, the Arizona Department of Education expressed its discomfort with the C-OC’s business relationship with ESI by referring the company to the AG’s School Fraud Task Force to determine if there was a conflict of interest. At the time of ADE’s referral, district board members were contracting with ESI for the employment of Assistant Superintendent Dave Osborn and were prepared to employ Tavasci as superintendent through the employment agency.
In late June, Osborn left the district. As a result of the AG’s investigation, Tavasci later rescinded his retirement and accepted a standard contract from the district.
In August, Tavasci hoped for a positive outcome regarding the conflict of interest issues following a meeting with an attorney and investigator from the AG’s task force.
While awaiting the status of the investigation, ESI will continue to provide classified employees to the C-OC District as well as consulting services to charter schools.
ESI receives no compensation from the C-OC District for its services.