- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

D.C. Board of Education officials say they will revamp hiring policies for charter schools after The Washington Times reported last week that the principal of the city’s oldest charter school is a felon with a questionable professional history.

“This incident is raising all kinds of questions that we hadn’t thought of before,” said Brenda Belton, executive director of charter schools for the D.C. school board. “A lot of safeguards are going to be put in place to make sure the schools can be held accountable and so they can thrive.”

School board officials say they have no policy on how charter schools should hire staff or check their backgrounds. Each school does its own hiring and checking — part of the independence that comes with being a charter school. Charter schools are publicly funded, privately run enterprises, and 16 of the city’s more than three dozen charter schools are overseen by the D.C. school board.

Ms. Belton said she will require that all charter school administrators turn over to her office copies of their staff resumes and background checks. Until now, charter employees did that voluntarily, she said.

“The charter schools operate like mini school systems,” said Ms. Belton. “We didn’t ask how are they checking out people. That was their own purview. It wasn’t even something we thought to look at or thought we should ask about.”

The action comes after The Times reported Thursday that Clarence Edward Dixon is a felon with a long arrest record and was on probation for credit-card fraud when he became principal of Options Public Charter School on Capitol Hill in June.

Chancellor Beacon Inc., the Florida-based educational firm that operates Options and one other school in the District, fired Mr. Dixon on Friday, saying he lied to his employers about his criminal background and misrepresented himself. They appointed the school’s vice principal, Monique Murdock, as interim principal Thursday.

Mr. Dixon has declined to speak to The Times about his criminal or professional record. He has directed inquiries to Greenbelt lawyer David Alexander, who also has declined to comment.

Some charter school and school board officials say they also are considering ways of standardizing procedures for hiring in a manner similar to those of public schools. For example, public school employees in the District receive background checks from the school system’s security department, which performs FBI fingerprint criminal-records checks. A check performed in 2000 uncovered Mr. Dixon’s criminal record and prevented D.C. schools from hiring him.

Charter school officials say they may be able to access the D.C. schools security personnel for background checks of charter school administrators. School security officials also say people trained in security need to be involved in investigating potential school employees.

“Did [Chancellor Beacon officials] know how to read the documents they received?” asked one regional school employee familiar with security matters who declined to be named. “Did they know what else to look for? How could they? They are not trained to do these checks.”

In the case of Options, Chancellor Beacon officials said their reviews of applicants’ backgrounds include checking references and asking applicants to apply for documents from state and city governments showing that they do not have criminal records. Because it is a private company and not a public agency, Chancellor Beacon cannot apply for police background checks itself, officials said.

Chancellor Beacon officials were not aware of Mr. Dixon’s past because they had received documents from the District and Maryland showing that he did not have a criminal record, they said. The Maryland background check did not ask the FBI to search for crimes such as fraud or theft; the D.C. search did not look for convictions older than a decade, officials said.

Mr. Dixon had been convicted of theft in the District in 1992 and of federal fraud charges in Tennessee in 1995, but neither conviction appeared on the company’s background check.

A more complete check would have uncovered eight arrests in the past 15 years on charges that included theft, fraud and drug possession, and a 1999 credit-card fraud conviction for which Mr. Dixon spent five months in federal prison.

A more thorough verification of Mr. Dixon’s resume by Chancellor Beacon also would have found multiple entries that couldn’t be verified or that contradicted information from the Tennessee Department of Education records. For example, his resume said he was employed by “Tennessee Public Schools” in Nashville as a special-education teacher from 1995 to 1997 and as an assistant principal at Nashville Public Schools from 1998 to 2000. State records showed no evidence that Mr. Dixon ever worked in an administrative capacity in a public school in Tennessee, worked in Nashville schools or worked as a teacher from September 1995 through June 1997.

Chancellor Beacon officials said they were able to speak with one of Mr. Dixon’s three references provided and believed that reference was for his most recent job, at a private juvenile facility in Prince George’s County in 2000.

Chancellor Beacon is a private company based in Coconut Grove, Fla., that manages 81 public charter and private schools in eight states.

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