The state agency that decides whether teachers are fit for California classrooms has a record of hiring workers with family ties.
Last year, the employee roster included two sets of siblings, one father-daughter pair, and three instances in which the child of an existing employee was hired temporarily as a student assistant.
A recent audit found 40 percent of employees surveyed said that hiring and promotion at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing are compromised by family relationships or favoritism – with 19 percent saying it occurs often.
The issue, one of many facing the commission at a legislative hearing this week, involves something that state agencies are not required to track: How often do they hire friends or relatives of employees?
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, in a letter to the commission, said the survey found hiring concerns that "strongly suggest the need for a shift to a more professional culture in the organization."
Commission employees provided state auditors with the names of 24 past or present colleagues who they contend are related to each other – a number agency leaders say represents only a small percentage of the 160-member staff.
Yet 43 percent of respondents at the commission said they fear retaliation if they file a grievance or formal complaint.
Once feelings of favoritism take root, they can taint an agency, harming the image of equal opportunity and fairness, according to Steinberg.
"Certainly, perception can be reality," he said.
The audit focused primarily on the commission's handling of teacher misconduct cases and prompted State Auditor Elaine Howle to describe it as one of the "worst run" offices she ever has investigated.
Two hiring irregularities involving relatives of commission employees were found:
– A candidate for student assistant was hired despite submitting her application 49 days after the deadline and not undergoing an oral interview. Commission Executive Director Dale Janssen said a supervisor mistakenly assumed that an exception to the normal hiring process could be made because the applicant was a previous employee.
– An eligibility exam took place even though the applicant was the sister of a person on the judging panel. Janssen said that allowing someone to evaluate a sister applicant was "absolutely unacceptable" and that test results later were nullified.
Janssen, whose commission oversees teacher credentialing, discipline and training standards, said the commission does not tilt hiring to favor or to disqualify relatives, he said.
"If the family member is the best qualified, why would we want to discriminate?" Janssen asked, adding that his office's anti-nepotism policy bars one relative from supervising another.
Janssen noted that only 26 percent of respondents said the commission's family ties create a conflict of interest or affect supervision, security or morale.
Auditors said they could not conclusively determine whether favoritism affected hiring because of flaws in commission record-keeping.
In four of seven hires it analyzed, auditors concluded that the commission did not retain adequate documentation to justify its choice.
"By not following its hiring practices and procedures for all appointments, including student assistants, the commission may not be able to deflect accusations and perceptions of favoritism," the audit said.
Attorney Kathy Carroll, who was fired by the commission while cooperating with auditors, said that "every time I turned around someone was telling me about someone else that was connected through marriage or familial relationship."
"It definitely affected people's ability to feel they have equal opportunity," Carroll said.
A related issue is the hiring of acquaintances: The commission's legal staff is dominated by former attorneys for the state Board of Equalization – Mary Armstrong, Ani Kindall, Monica Silva and Janet Vining, Carroll said.
The state requires merit-based hiring but does not ban or set limits on the number of relatives that can be hired. Departments typically adopt policies barring employees from supervising a relative, said Steve Caldwell of the State Personnel Board.
In a formal response to the state audit, the teacher credentialing commission said it will develop a comprehensive hiring manual. Janssen said that documents justifying new hires will be retained.
Doug Heller of Consumer Watchdog said that such records are crucial.
"It wouldn't be surprising that the daughter of a good accountant is a good accountant herself," he said. "It very well could be that the right person for the job happens to be related to an employee. But agencies should take care to demonstrate the appropriateness of the hire."
Howle's office did not release names of related employees, but The Bee confirmed at least six family relationships.
Spouses Cheryl Hickey and Marty Ledesma also serve the commission, but only Hickey is salaried. Ledesma is an appointee on a committee that reviews teacher misconduct allegations.
Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, said that six sets of relatives in a public agency of 160 employees seems relatively high. In private industry, the hiring of relatives tends to be frowned upon, he said.
"There are a lot of husbands and wives who work at the same place, but that doesn't mean it isn't of some concern," Elson said. "Historically, a lot of companies have said no."
Caldwell, of the State Personnel Board, said that no statistics are kept on whether the commission hires more or fewer relatives than other state agencies.
Assistant Chief Counsel Lee Pope, whose daughter works at the commission and whose son previously worked there, said that it is not odd that someone would want to follow in a relative's footsteps, hear about a job opening – and get hired on merit.
"What you're asking me, subtly, is were there some kind of improper dealings going on. The answer is absolutely no," Pope said.
"I've never had anything to do with anyone related to me getting a job, ever. Integrity is very important to me. I would never, ever do anything to cross the line."
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