Govans principal to resign post

Jones wrote a letter asking judge for leniency for teacher convicted of drug charges

July 20, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The principal of Govans Elementary School in Baltimore will not return to her job after writing a letter urging a federal judge to have leniency on a convicted drug dealer teaching special education, her lawyer and city school system officials said.

Principal Edith Jones wrote a letter supporting Martius Harding before he was sentenced last month to seven years in prison. Jones was given the choice of resigning by Aug. 1 or being fired, according to her lawyer, Ron Kowitz. She likely will resign in the next few weeks, he said.

Harding was hired in 2002 despite a felony conviction and continued teaching for a year after he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession. On Tuesday night, city school officials met with Govans parents and teachers. During the session, James Smith, an administrator who oversees 30 schools including Govans, said a new round of criminal background checks would be conducted on staff hired before last year at all city schools. Employees at Govans would be the first to be reviewed, Smith said.

But school board member Diane Bell McKoy, who attended the meeting, said that the board would have to approve such a sweeping move, which likely would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yesterday, school system spokeswoman Edie House said that conducting new background checks at schools beyond Govans is "a ways off. It's not to say it won't happen, but we're not there yet. I would venture to say it's not something you would do at one time."

Smith said in a phone interview yesterday that a proposal to conduct the checks would be sent to the school board by the time it meets next week. "The full board is not aware of all of this yet," he said. "Maybe I was in haste saying what I said last night."

An interim principal for Govans is also scheduled to be appointed at next week's board meeting, officials said.

At Tuesday's meeting, attended by about 30 people and organized by the Govans PTA, parents grilled Smith and other system officials about how Harding was hired and how they could be assured that more criminals aren't working in the public schools.

"Who else is in the school system who we might not want to be there?" asked Fatima Wilson, whose granddaughter is entering first grade at Govans.

Several of Jones' supporters were in the audience, saying she was being used as a scapegoat when it is the school system's human resources department that is responsible for hiring and firing. Others said she made a grave error in judgment when she wrote a letter supporting Harding. But they, too, said central office administrators should share the blame for what happened.

Before Harding's hiring at Govans, he had pleaded guilty in an elaborate Internet fraud in West Virginia. Smith said that conviction did not show up in the background check performed when Harding was hired. He said the company that performed the checks no longer does business with the city school system.

Since last year, Smith said, the system has fingerprinted all prospective employees, assuring that "there's an accurate record."

Harding pleaded guilty in August to having more than 5 pounds of cocaine in his truck.

He taught a class of fourth- and fifth-graders classified as emotionally disturbed for the entire school year before being sentenced June 16. State officials have said he was not certified to teach in Maryland.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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