State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas recently lobbied against a bill that would allow the state Board of Education to hire and fire its employees, arguing that the board can’t handle the business it currently has.
Douglas, who oversees K-12 education across the state, has a rocky history with the board, including trying to fire two board employees last February. Douglas mentioned an extreme example of board negligence to make her case against SB 1416 on Feb. 4 during a state Senate Education Committee meeting.
"We presented a report to the board on (teacher discipline) that showed their abject failure to report teachers whose certifications have been revoked or suspended to the national database," she said. "And in one instance, because of that failure to report, it resulted in the death of a student."
Her accusation was striking, so we wanted to fact-check whether the board failed to report a teacher’s history and if it resulted in a student’s death.
The board erred
Douglas was referring to former high school math teacher Tamara Hofmann. She taught at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe.
In November 2006, Chandler police found Hofmann and one of her students, Sixto Balbuena, together in her car. Both denied sexual relations when questioned by police.
The incident immediately spurred an internal school investigation. Hofmann was removed from the classroom, but her provisional secondary teaching certificate remained valid until it expired on Jan. 5, 2007.
Typically, a teacher needs to teach for three years on a provisional certificate before the state issues them a standard one. The process is usually automatic as the state Department of Education vets a teacher’s experience before issuing the certificate.
However, only the state Board of Education can take action on a certificate, whether it's revoking or suspending an existing certificate, or denying a new certificate.
The state board took no action on her provisional certificate. On Jan. 18, the school closed its investigation. She appealed the discipline — 10 days unpaid suspension and a letter of reprimand — before it was denied and imposed in February.
The state board admitted that they recorded the investigation internally, but a clerical error did not show anyone outside the board that she was under investigation. If reported correctly, anyone could search for a teacher and whether or not they have any discipline using the state’s website.
The state Department of Education, in turn, did not see that Hofmann was under investigation before they issued her a standard teaching certificate on Jan. 29, 2007.
"There was nothing to flag it," Department of Education spokesman Charles Tack said. "That never got into the system."
Hofmann returned to school in March 2007, working in the district’s office away from students. Hofmann continued to work in the district office until her contract ended in May.
El Dorado High School in Chandler hired Hofmann the following summer. Like the department, they did not see past discipline for Hofmann visible on the state’s web site.
It was there Hofmann met another student, Samuel Valdivia.
In April 2009, Hofmann’s alleged lover, Sixto Balbuena, walked in on Hofmann with Valdivia at her apartment. Balbuena stabbed and killed Valdivia.
It was only after the murder that Hofmann surrendered her certificate instead of going through a state board hearing. The board launched a complaint against the certificate in November 2009 and approved her surrender in January 2010.
As for the "national database," Douglas was referring to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. It is an oversight board for all state education departments.
Reporting Hofmann's discipline at Marcos de Niza to the association would have provided another red flag to El Dorado before they hired her.
Association CEO Phillip Rogers said a teacher with a valid certificate could still have discipline reported to the database. States decide on their own what to report to the database, he said.
"In some states a reprimand where the educator retains his/her certificate might be reported, and in other states it would not," Rogers said.
The one entry in the national database on Hofmann is from Jan. 27, 2010 — two days after she surrendered her teaching certificate.
Douglas said, "We presented a report to the board on (teacher discipline) that showed their abject failure to report teachers whose certifications have been revoked or suspended to the national database," she said. "And in one instance, because of that failure to report, it resulted in the death of a student."
Let’s be clear: There is not a straight line between the actions of the Board of Education and the death of a student.
But the actions -- or, really, lack of action -- by the Board of Education prevented a school district from seeing red flags that might have prevented Hofmann’s hiring.
Without those flags, Hofmann was rehired. And that’s how a student ended up in a position that ultimately resulted in his death.
Douglas’ claim is accurate but requires that fuller description of events. So we rate it Mostly True.