“Twenty-five million dollars missing or unaccounted for.” Shocking headlines and stories similar to this appearing in local newspapers recently is what has finally brought attention to the ever growing world of corruption in school districts on Long Island. Many of the recent news stories that have appeared in local papers focus on the horrible financial mismanagement and theft that has been going on in school districts for many years unchecked. The real problem is not being examined or addressed. How did such large amounts of money in various districts disappear without anyone blowing the whistle on the offenders? When this question is examined one will likely find that the root cause of the problems that many districts currently face relates to nepotism and patronage. If there is an inundation of family members and friends that are holding all the jobs in a district then the likelihood of someone blowing the whistle and stopping the offenders decreases dramatically due to family loyalty. The nepotism and patronage problems that many districts face have many more negative effects than just financial mismanagement. Nepotism can have adverse effects on the teachers’ unions, students and the district as a whole.
Dictionary.com defines nepotism as, “favoritism shown to relatives or close friends by those in power (as by giving them jobs).” When it comes to getting a job in the field of education, teacher Rich Brown says, “what you know is not as important as who you know” (personal communication, February 24, 2006). Well qualified teachers with years of experience and impressive resumes are being declined for jobs that are being awarded to recent college graduates whose teaching certifications have not even been approved by New York State yet. The reason for this occurrence, which happens all too frequently, is nepotism. The aforementioned recent college graduate is awarded the much sought after job over other more qualified candidates because he or she is the relative of someone in that school district. Not since the days of Andrew Jackson has the belief in “to the victor go the spoils” been so alive and well as it is in the contemporary educational job market. He who is in charge gets to pick the people that will get the jobs.
Demonstrating nepotism when awarding teaching jobs is particularly dangerous because of the product that the employee is working with. The minds of the youth should not be placed in the hands of anything but the most qualified individual that can give them meaningful and accurate instruction. By giving out jobs based on nepotism, the students in the affected school districts are being instructed by teachers that may not be the most qualified individuals to give instruction. Sometimes teachers are actually fired if possible, or relocated to other pilot programs outside of their teaching area in order to create an opening for someone’s relative that wants a job. In one school district on Long Island a teacher that I interviewed was not given a position when it opened because that teacher’s student teacher (who she was entrusted with the responsibility of teaching how to give instruction) became available for the job at the same time that she was to be considered and the student teacher was the son of the director of personnel. Standards are increasing in New York and the country and teacher quality is decreasing. Students are expected to accomplish more in less time and teacher quality is decreasing. Students are expected to score higher on mandatory exams and teacher quality is decreasing. While all other aspects of education and student performance seem to be moving forward, the hiring process of school districts has slipped backward to 1829 and the Jacksonian Era with jobs being awarded capriciously.
Teachers and other district employees should also promote positive, non-discriminatory, merit-based employment practices. Teachers and other employees who did not have to work hard to get their jobs often times do not feel the need to work hard to defend their jobs. In these troubling economic times job security is a great concern for many people. Teachers are constantly plagued by the worry that the state or federal government may reduce financial aid to their respective districts requiring the district to make staffing cuts. It is not uncommon to have members of teachers’ unions rally in state capitols to try to secure funding for the upcoming school year. It is also not uncommon for members of teachers’ unions to canvas the neighborhoods of their employment district encouraging taxpayers to approve the upcoming budget. Unfortunately it is also not uncommon to find only veteran teachers with many years on the job and little to worry about in terms of job security out defending the newer teachers who do not bother to show up. Many newer teachers that secured jobs through nepotism feel no need to defend their jobs when the time comes to do so. This occurs because they had no trouble getting their teaching job; therefore, less value is placed on that job and the need to protect it. People tend to place greater value on things they work hard to obtain and that is not the case for those who secure jobs through nepotism. Teachers who receive jobs through nepotism are weak union members unwilling to fight for their jobs and afraid to anger the relatives that provided them with the jobs in the first place. Nepotistic hiring practices hurt teachers’ unions.
Less qualified teachers in the classrooms and a weakened teachers’ union not willing to work hard to protect job security can have a detrimental effect on the district as a whole. If a teacher does not have experience in the subject matter being taught and is not willing to better him or herself, then student performance will likely suffer. The lack of experience and motivation on the part of the new teachers will lead to poor classroom instruction and may cause mandatory exam scores to drop. When exam scores drop, schools loose state and federal funding. When state and federal funding is lost it becomes the burden of the taxpayers of that district to compensate for the loss in funding. In order to compensate for loss of funding school taxes are increased. Increased school taxes, coupled with reports about poorly performing schools will lead to property value losses district-wide. As school districts try to correct the problem it can also become very costly to remove ineffective teachers that have tenure, which is why the selection process is suppose to be thorough and merit-based. If too many relatives are working in a district together there is also increased likelihood that the problems will persist for a long time without notice due to internal cover-ups. The process of correcting the problems resulting from nepotistic hiring practices can be very costly and time consuming.
Nepotistic hiring practices are not just a problem in New York. Investigations into, as well as stories and complaints about, districts riddled with nepotism can also be found in many other states. In Oklahoma the state legislature has actually taken legislative action to deal with the nepotism problem in school employment practices by issuing House Bill 2479, which bans residents from holding board of education positions if their relative is employed by the school district and vice versa (Rousselot, 2006). Superintendent Dawson of Camden New Jersey was found to have had seven relatives on the district payroll when the state of New Jersey audited the district back in 1996 (Pristin, 1996). An article from February, 2003 in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette also revealed a significant nepotism problem in numerous school districts throughout the state of Pennsylvania (McKay). The presence of nepotism in school district hiring practices is a widespread problem and deserves the attention of the entire nation and, most certainly, the attention of the citizens that reside in districts with nepotistic hiring practices.
With nepotism being such a widespread problem people may wonder what they can possibly do to combat the issue. When it comes to the problem of nepotistic hiring practices in school districts the local public actually has much more power that it often recognizes. Education is controlled on a state level, which immediately eliminates the worry of having to combat federal bureaucracy to get the problem solved. Not only is education regulated by individual state governments, but education is often more closely regulated on a local level by school boards. The names of school employees are considered public information and are available to the community at any time. Concerned members of the public need only ask for the names of employees, compare similarities and ask informed questions. If it is found that nepotism is a problem in the district than pressure can be put on the board of education to address the unfair hiring practices. Many school districts have adopted new employment policies after prompts from the local community to eliminate nepotistic hiring practices. If a sufficient number of citizens complain to their elected state representatives it is possible to have statewide legislation enacted that addresses the nepotism problem as well, just as was seen in Oklahoma. Education is regulated on a state and local level and problems with district hiring practices can be dealt with by concerned members of the public seeking out their elected representatives and pressuring them to attend to the matter promptly.
In 1883 the United States Congress passed the Civil Service Act. This was done to try and eliminate some of the corruption associated with the spoils system and capricious distribution of government jobs to unqualified individuals. The civil service system has been used since 1883 to award government jobs to the best qualified candidates. Prospective employees for government jobs must submit to exams that measures their skill levels. Jobs are subsequently awarded based on the score that applicants received on the exam; the higher the exam score the better position an applicant receives on the list of potential employees. Teachers in New York are required to submit to two exams before they are able to obtain their teaching certificate. The scores on the exams measure the teacher’s competence in subject matter, ability to reason and knowledge of teaching techniques. These exams are only used in determining whether or not a teacher deserves state certification, however, and play no role in the employment process after that point. After one hundred twenty-three years since the advent and implementation of the civil service system and millions of dollars worth of financial mismanagement and corrupt business practices later, New York state has still not figured out that scores on certification exams may be able to serve a greater purpose. What better way to reform hiring practices then to capitalize on the system of evaluation already in place. Using teacher certification exams as a tool to award jobs to the most qualified individuals is one way to avoid having jobs awarded just to relatives of board members, administrators and other teachers. It also helps to justify giving a relative a job if he or she actually scores high on the exam and proves to be the most qualified individual.
Ultimately, the job of monitoring nepotism in school districts falls upon the public. If the public is well informed and gets involved in community affairs then the chances of such egregious hiring practices occurring will decrease. The public can also push for legislative action to ban nepotistic hiring practices locally and statewide. Practicing nepotism in educational employment is inappropriate and can have horrible effects on the students, other teachers and the community that allows the practice to take place.