Education agency to build fingerprint database

The Michael Maples scandal shook the Victoria community, and Texas leaders are pushing to safeguard against such future incidents.

When Maples was hired as principal of Memorial High School, the system for checking the criminal background of employees failed, said Eleanor Gonzalez, president of the Victoria Federation of Teachers.”Somehow people are slipping through,” Gonzalez said. “Whoever expected something like that to happen in Victoria?”

Scenarios such as Maples lying on his application for VISD principal show a need for urgency in the push for background checks by the Texas Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick signed a letter directing the Texas Education Agency to cover fingerprinting costs for teachers and other education professionals, said Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Perry’s office.

“It was an unfunded mandate so the leadership wanted to do right by the teachers and the school districts,” Castle said.

Dewhurst became aware of incidents where educators lied on their applications or where it was found they committed prior offenses of which no one was aware, said Mike Wintemute, spokesman for Dewhurst’s office. Dewhurst wants to establish safeguards to prevent that.

“Parents deserve to know who is working with their children,” Wintemute said.

Senate Bill 9, passed through the 80th Legislature, requires that the TEA build a fingerprint database through the Department of Public Safety by January 2008, said Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman with the education agency. The system would update information to provide the latest information, in case already-certified teachers stopped teaching for a while, committed a crime and wanted to go back to teaching.

The database would be accessible by school districts that could look at backgrounds for hiring or checking up on the activities of long-time teachers, Marchman said.A 2003 law required that all teaching candidates submit to national criminal background checks, but that did not cover those already certified.

Joe Bean, public affairs specialist with the Texas State Teachers Association, said the $50-per-person funding would cover the cost of the fingerprinting, which could cost from $47 to $52.

“Fingerprinting is the mechanism that makes the background check possible,” Bean said,

Bean said thorough background checks using fingerprints might keep other people like Maples from coming into Victoria.

The TEA plans to meet on how and when to distribute the funds, Marchman said.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas American Federation for Teachers, said the group sent a letter to Dewhurst and Craddick last week raising the issue of the TEA passing on the cost to teachers.

“We’re delighted to see the leadership come through,” Bridges said. “All during the legislative session they said this would not be a cost item to teachers.”

The school district welcomes Senate Bill 9, said Diane Boyett, VISD communications specialist. Any funding that would help the school district meet its requirements is needed.

Boyett said she hopes it will serve as a deterrent to people seeking employment in schools who shouldn’t be.

But Boyett said covering the costs for Maples background check wouldn’t have done anything.

“This was an unfortunate situation where the person was not forthcoming with VISD about his history,” Boyett said.

Gonzalez said pushing funds toward background checks that don’t work are a waste of money. She would like to see the funds put toward other educational programs.