Diversity Hiring Committees face complications
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The English and social studies departments have had difficulty hiring their preferred candidates of color this spring due to two roadblocks: salaries that do not honor out of state teaching experience and a state-mandated Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) endorsement, which verifies a teacher’s ability to teach English Language Learners.
English Curriculum Coordinator Mary Burchenal said that she was unable to hire an African-American candidate that she thought was an excellent candidate. The candidate believed that Brookline was a better fit for him than another district that offered him a job, but he took the other district’s offer because of the large salary offer disparity — the difference in salary totaled $20,000.
“To my knowledge, we have never had an African-American male teaching English at Brookline High School. He was a terrific candidate,” Burchenal said. “He just had a lot to offer a lot of students across the spectrum at this high school. I was extremely disappointed not to be able to make him an offer that respected his years of experience and that communicated how valuable a teacher we thought he was.”
According to Burchenal, Interim Superintendent Joseph Connelly did not choose to exercise discretion and offer the candidate a higher salary that would recognize his years teaching out of state, educational degrees and number of education credits. According to Human Resources Director for Public Schools of Brookline Elaine O’Sullivan, the superintendent can do so in 10 cases a year. Connelly did not reply to requests for an interview.
The SEI requirement presented initial complications in the hiring of Dr. Oyeshiku Carr, an African-American, who is “enormously impressive” according to Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman. Carr was approved on Tuesday, June 7.
The salary a teacher is offered is based on the years a teacher has been teaching and their academic advancement.
However, according to the most recent contract between the Brookline School Committee and the Brookline Educators Union (2011-2014), teaching experience does not include years teaching outside of Massachusetts (pg 4). Teachers coming from another state do not get credit for those years, and as a result, must start at a lower base pay than they were at in the previous state they taught in.
Burchenal said that Brookline offered the English department candidate $20,000 less than another district offered him, mostly because Brookline does not honor out of state experience. The rest of the difference was due to the other district compensating him for academic advancement that Brookline does not credit teachers for.
Burchenal thinks that even a $10,000 increase in Brookline’s offer could have swayed him.
Connelly has exercised discretion with seven hirees so far of the allowed 10, which is more than usual at this point in the hiring process, according to Deputy Superintendent for Administration and Finance Mary Ellen Dunn. O’Sullivan said that two of the cases in which Connelly exercised discretion were for educators of color.
Burchenal said that she is frustrated that she was not able to hire the candidate she wanted because of the amount of work that went into the hiring search and the promises that have been made to students.
“They could have made a deal to go above that step number for this candidate to honor some of his out-of-state experience, but they did not, evidently for budget-constraint reasons. They feel that they’re in a very tight budget year,” Burchenal said.
“It’s too bad because we have worked really hard,” Burchenal said. “We’ve promised students that we would create a faculty that looked at least a little more like them. And we are. World language is hiring two candidates of color, so I’m not saying that the district isn’t hiring people of color, but this was a real disappointment.”
SEI: Another Hurdle
The requirement that all staff have an SEI endorsement has presented problems in hiring certain candidates who do not have the endorsement yet or have not renewed it recently enough. However, although O’Sullivan believes the endorsement is crucial, she said that there is some flexibility.
Shiffman believes that the SEI endorsement is important to ensure that teachers are capable of teaching all students. However, he also believes that the law requiring it is too strict.
“The goal is laudable, a good idea,” Shiffman said. “It was decided in a lawsuit. Things decided by lawsuits are often a little ham-fisted when they’re implemented. ‘Everyone must do it this way!’ So the courses that had been devised, it’s fair to say, need work.”
Burchenal said that she believes the SEI endorsement requirement would have become an issue in the hiring of the English-department candidate if they had gotten beyond the salary issue. She agrees with Shiffman that SEI endorsements make the hiring process more difficult.
“It’s another obstacle to hiring the people we want to hire, because a certain amount of flexibility is really important when you’re trying to change the demographics of the people who usually come to your door,” Burchenal said.
Assistant Headmaster Hal Mason said that the SEI endorsement became a Massachusetts requirement about three years ago, so teachers coming from a different state do not have it. Because teachers renew their contracts every five years, teachers that have not graduated in the last three years or have not renewed their contracts within the last three years may not have the endorsement.
“It narrows the field of how many candidates you can look at, and that has butted heads with our efforts to look for a more diverse candidate field,” Mason said.
Competing for Candidates of Color
Brookline is competing with the Boston public school district for qualified candidates of color, according to O’Sullivan.
She said Boston has a federal mandate requiring the city to employ a percentage of teachers of color to match its student body. In recent years there has been a lot of turnover due to the retirement of the wave of educators that began teaching in 1970.
According to Mason, suburban districts have the same desire to hire a more diverse staff.
“The problem comes when you have a qualified candidate, and they often are getting several offers,” Mason said. “It almost becomes like a bidding war for good candidates.”
Diversifying the staff: A marathon or a sprint?
According to O’Sullivan, the process of hiring more teachers of color is a marathon, not a sprint. Most years, there is a five percent staff turnover.
“I want people to recognize that the face of Brookline might not look all that different for the next few years,” she said.
Burchenal said that she recognizes that the diversity hiring effort is both a long-term and short-term process — not a problem that can be fixed in one year. She said some of the candidates she met were too young to be hired for next year, but that she and other teachers who are part of the hiring initiative are working to get them interested now. They hope that they will come back when they are more experienced.
Burchenal said she believes that she and people working at Town Hall, including the superintendent and human resources director, have the same goal, but she thinks she feels more urgency to create a more diverse teacher body.
“I believe that we are all working for the same thing,” Burchenal said. “I think what might be different in this case is that this, for me, is not a priority among other priorities. It’s an absolute necessity and an emergency. And that’s the difference. It’s not that they don’t believe in it, it’s that the urgency must feel less to them somewhat.”
According to Mason, this is not a unique year in terms of hiring disappointments.
“There have been specific candidates that we hoped would get a higher offer that didn’t get such a high offer,” Mason said. “But that happens every year. It’s certainly not the first time that this has happened, and it’s something that happens all the time.”
O’Sullivan said that there are some one-year teaching positions open for the 2016-2017 school year. Next spring she wants to focus on getting the best candidates for tenured positions.
She also wants to create screening questions next year for applicants on School Spring, the job-search website Brookline uses. Screening questions will include teachers’ wage expectations and if they have an SEI endorsement. O’Sullivan said that announcing requirements up front will lead to fewer disappointments and miscommunications further down the road.
Dunn said she believes the process will run more smoothly next year if the people on hiring committees familiarize themselves with what the teacher-contract requires in terms of pay. She said that some of the people on the committee are not always acquainted with laws.
According to Mason, it is still very early in the hiring process, and the school has hired only about a quarter or third of the total staff they will be hiring for next year.
“There’s an enormous push in value to what we did in the school this year in recruiting diverse people,” Mason said. “We’ve hired some great people; we’re really happy with how it worked out. We made some great contacts. We didn’t get everybody who we wanted, but we got a bunch of really good people, and we’re hoping to get more.”
According to Shiffman, the district is in tremendous flux right now and many of the people working at Town Hall and in the high school will not be here next year. Shiffman said that it’s hard to predict what next year will look like.
“A lot is changing in the district and some of the new parameters for hiring weren’t clear to me when I set out,” Shiffman said. “But you know, I’m learning. I’m learning how things will be now, and I’m sure I will adapt, and figure out how our rules interact with the state rules and interact with what actually matters, which is finding really great teachers in the classroom here at Brookline High School.”
It is unlikely at this point that an applicant of color will be hired for the position in the English department, according to Burchenal. But she said she is not ready to lose hope.
“We haven’t given up. We’re still going to try our hardest, but the chances of that happening now are much slimmer than they were at the beginning of the process when I thought this could happen,” Burchenal said. “But never say never. We haven’t finished. We’re in the middle of the process. I will remain hopeful until it’s over.”