Editorial: Two prime candidates have ties to scandal

The Columbus Board of Education should be focused on making sure that the next superintendent is someone of unimpeachable reputation who can take the district forward, with no ties to a troubled recent past.

Instead, after a secret process to winnow at least 19 candidates down to three, two of those chosen are tied to the data-rigging scandal that rocked the district in 2012 and 2013.

To be sure, the role of Keith Bell, a onetime deputy superintendent in Columbus who retired in 2016 as superintendent of Euclid schools, is very different from that of Interim Superintendent John Stanford, who inexplicably remains at the highest levels of administration after more than seven undistinguished years.

Bell can be seen as an early whistleblower in the data scandal. Unlike other Columbus City Schools leaders, when a subordinate came to him in 2011 and said people were doing suspicious things with student attendance data, he did the right thing. He asked some questions, dropped into some schools to investigate and went straight to then-Superintendent Gene Harris with his troubling findings.

Not long after, Harris booted Bell from his position and gave many of his duties to mid-level manager Michael Dodds who, we learned later, was a master data-manipulator and eventually served 14 days in jail for it.

Bell’s concern was admirable, but if he is to be considered for the district’s top job, he should explain why he didn’t tell what he knew to the state Department of Education or someone else outside the district before leaving for another job, so that the web of deceit could have been exposed much sooner.

That shortcoming pales, however, compared with those of Stanford, a handpicked lieutenant to Harris who shouldn’t have been hired in 2010, let alone retained all these years and now considered for the superintendency.

He had no background in running any part of a school district. After serving as the district’s lobbyist, he left in 2007 to become Gov. Ted Strickland’s education-policy czar. In late 2010, the district was searching for a chief operating officer, and Strickland lost his re-election bid to John Kasich. Stanford was out of a job.

Harris insisted on hiring her friend Stanford as chief operating officer, despite a $15,000-plus consultant search that recommended two qualified candidates, while Stanford didn’t meet the minimum qualifications for the position.

The results weren’t impressive. The data cheating continued, even after it came to public light in 2012. District operations remained chaotic. An audit found that the personnel department operated without the most basic of policies and controls.

When Stanford was charged with hiring 300 new bus drivers at the start of the 2013-14 school year, he came up 51 short, forcing existing drivers to cover double routes and parents to improvise for weeks.

It’s hard to understand why Stanford has remained in his position so long and why he is being considered for the ultimate promotion.

If board members can’t give convincing reasons for putting Stanford on the short list, they should reconsider. The district deserves leadership that is free of any possible taint from its troubled past.




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