EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 15, 2012

Oversight lacking in license rules

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — A former school psychologist worked for as long as three years without a valid license, but that did not set off alarm bells under the existing evaluation system that allowed him to reach a tenure-like status without his license extension being approved.

Mark Ternullo, a former psychologist at Timony Grammar School, was found to have been without a current state school psychologist license in June. He subsequently resigned, according to the School Department. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said he had applied for an extension on his initial five-year license in 2009, though that extension had not been granted.

That three years, from the time he applied for his extension in 2009 until his removal from the Timony on June 5, would not necessarily set off red flags, according to state regulations and local agreements on licensure and evaluations. However, the burden for ensuring each employee has the required license falls on that employee and has little direct oversight, interviews with state and local officials and a review of state and local evaluation requirements revealed.

At each level of oversight state and local officials, from the state to the local school administration, officials said the responsibility for ensuring each employee has the required license falls on somebody else.

“The initial license is valid for five years of employment and the district must ensure that their staff are legally employable,” said J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Similar to other educational roles in which the person is employed by the district, such as a math teacher being licensed in math, a school psychologist that is employed by the district must have an active and valid license to be employed in the role.”

At the local level, the School Department said that while supervisors and principals periodically evaluate employees, the responsibility for ensuring that employees have a valid and current license falls on each employee in accordance with the current evaluation system.

“The language is clear that licensure is the teacher’s responsibility,” said Dr. Brandi Kwong, the interim assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Kwong stepped in as assistant superintendent in August after Dr. Jennifer Smith, the previous assistant superintendent who was out on leave for several months, retired.

Evaluation is regulated by the state education department, but many of the specifics are negotiated with each bargaining unit. The current evaluation system divides employees into two groups: Professional status employees who have been with the district longer than three years and those who have been there fewer than three years.

In the first three years, a teacher, or in Ternullo’s case a psychologist, is observed and evaluated several times each year by a supervisor, who fills out an observation report and an evaluation.

Those evaluations and reports, which are part of the teachers’ contract, do not include a specific check off for license status.

If a psychologist gains professional status, which is akin to tenure and grants full participation in the teachers’ contract and union, he or she is set on a four-year evaluation cycle.

The first and third years of that cycle include a professional growth plan, which requires the employee to list license type and the expiration or renewal deadline, along with professional goals for the year. That document is signed by the employee and his or her supervisor. At the end of those years, the employee must report on the progress made on those goals and again must disclose license type and the expiration and renewal date.

Years two and four include observations and written evaluations.

Kwong, a former principal at Comprehensive Grammar School, said a teacher or psychologist with an expired license would receive help from his or her supervisor in navigating the lengthy and at times frustrating process of renewing a license with the state.

”Sometimes I’ve written five letters to DESE because they said they haven’t gotten it,” she said.

That system is due to change, however. The state issued new regulations on teacher evaluation last year, as required for accepting federal Race to the Top education funding in 2010. Many districts in Massachusetts were to have a new system in place this fall. Methuen, which did not accept Race to the Top funding, has until the fall of 2013 to negotiate a new system.

Those negotiations are underway now. “This is the law, and it’s way different from what we have now,” she said. One possible change could include evaluating psychologists and guidance counselors a little differently than teachers because the nature of their jobs is different, she said.

Ternullo received his initial license, which is good for five years of employment, on July 1, 2003, according to the state. He applied for an initial extension on April 23, 2009, though Considine said the application is still “in process,” meaning all requirements for an extension have not been fulfilled.

He was hired at Methuen Public School on Aug. 22, 2007, according to Superintendent Judith Scannell. His three year anniversary, when he would have reached professional status, was in 2010, more than a year after he applied for an extension on his license. He was removed from the Timony on June 5, his last day at work.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.