EVIT dinged $2.8M for uncertified teachers The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

EVIT dinged $2.8M for uncertified teachers

EVIT dinged $2.8M for uncertified teachers

By Jim Walsh, Tribune Staff Writer

The East Valley Institute of Technology will pay a high price for using uncertified instructors teaching unapproved programs during the final three years of former Superintendent Sally Downey’s Administration.

A December 2019 audit by the state Department of Education said EVIT received more than $2.8 million in state aid to which it was not entitled between 2016-18.

EVIT initially appealed the audit’s findings, but the board now has agreed an out-of-court settlement in which the vocational education district will be docked for $1.4 million in future state aid.

The state Department of Education declined comment on the settlement.

The audit followed an investigative report by attorney Susan Segal in February 2019 that sharply criticized Downey’s management style and alleged several possible violations of state law, including the use of uncertified teachers.

Gust Rosenfeld, Segal’s law firm, was hired by the new board in January 2019 to investigate Downey, who was placed on administrative leave. She subsequently resigned.

Because of Segal’s findings, the board had to re-bid a $33 million construction contract that had been awarded in December 2018 under Downey for expansion of its East Mesa campus, said attorney Kevin Koelbel, EVIT’s director of legal services.

A November 2018 board meeting also was not advertised properly to comply with the state Open Meetings Law, so all decisions by the old board at that meeting were declared void and they had to be reconsidered by the present board.

“I think it was the last big thing that was left’’ from Segal’s list of possible violations, Koelbel said of the audit.

Downey’s support at EVIT eroded after the 2018 election dramatically changed the board’s composition.

For years, Downey had functioned as the larger-than-life face of EVIT, cultivating support from politicians and the business community.

But she had alienated some of her employees, who accused her of an intimidating management style, various board members and EVIT employees said.

The new board eventually negotiated a lucrative buyout of Downey’s contract, capping her 19-year career in April 2019.

The Tribune reported in March 2019 that the Department of Education was auditing EVIT. It quoted a spokesman as saying that preliminary findings revealed as many as 60 instances where teachers were not properly certified, dating back to 2015.

“The District provided programs that were not approved by the ADE Career and Technical Education (CTE) department in fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018,’’ according to the audit.

“Furthermore, some district teachers were not certified or were not appropriately certified to teach in fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018,’’ the audit said.

Because the district failed to follow state regulations, 221 students were enrolled in an unapproved course; 1,156 students were taught by an uncertified teacher; and 102 students were taught by a teacher who was not certified until after the school year started, according to the audit.

Before the COVID-19 epidemic forced EVIT’s closure, the career education school had 4,259 high school students and 253 adult students.

EVIT serves a number of area school districts, including  Cave Creek, Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Tempe Union, Chandler Unified, Mesa, Apache Junction, Gilbert Public Schools, Higley Unified, JO Combs and Queen Creek.

The audit and the settlement agreement did not name the non-certified teachers, but Segal’s report State House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, as one of the uncertified teachers.

“Numerous times and for numerous years, at least two district employees (Russell Bowers and Anthony Toscano) who were not certified to teach career and technical education by the Arizona State Board of Education signed these contracts, agreeing that their employment was conditioned upon holding an Arizona Career and Technical Education Certification and endorsements issued by the State Board of Education,’’ Segal wrote.

However, when Bowers signed his contract in September 2018, “he scratched out this clause that said it was conditioned upon having an Arizona Career and Technical Education Certification and endorsements. Instead he wrote in language that stated that the contract was conditioned upon having a ‘Permanent Certification of Substitute Teacher’ rather than ‘Career and Technical Education Certification.’ The Board never approved this change in language,’’ Segal wrote.

Segal wrote that Bowers’ contract labeled him as a teacher, even though Downey said he functioned as a coordinator of welding certificates.

Segal also said she found that Bowers was paid a salary roughly equivalent to that of a certified teacher – $216 daily with a full contract of $19,496 for August-December 2018. Substitute teachers were normally paid $90 a day.

Koelbel said that Bowers was never the teacher of record for any classes at EVIT and acted more as an assistant teacher in large classes.

He said he does not have an accurate list of uncertified teachers covered by the audit.

State law prohibits lawmakers from holding any other government-related job except teacher.

At first, the Department of Education found EVIT owed $5.8 million, but that figure was eventually winnowed down through negotiations to $2.8 million, with the two parties eventually agreeing to split the difference to avoid further legal action, he said.

Attorney Carrie O’Brien, who formerly worked for the Department of Education, represented EVIT in the negotiations, Koelbel said.

He said the agreement calls for EVIT’s state funding to be docked $58,000 per month during a 24-month period until the state is reimbursed for the over-payment of state aid.

EVIT takes the certification issue seriously, he said. Any teacher who was not certified during that time period would need to be certified now to continue their employment.

“If they are not certified, they are not here,’’ Koelbel said.

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