News Local/State

Audit Report Points To Problems In Urbana Schools Hiring Process

Urbana Middle School

Urbana Middle School Urbana School District 116

An audit requested by the Urbana District 116 Board of Education points to problems with the hiring process in a handful of hires made in the last year and a half, according to an audit report obtained by Illinois Public Media.

The audit report, which was produced by the law firm Robbins Schwartz, states the district didn’t follow its hiring procedures in several of the cases reviewed.

As practiced, the district’s hiring process “is entirely subjective, and in some cases documentation reflects that the best candidate was not hired,” the report states.

Nearly all the positions targeted by the audit were held by black staff members, according to additional documents obtained by Illinois Public Media.

The positions reviewed included an unspecified number specifically requested by school board members. The job roles include those related to the district’s new restorative practices initiative, its technology department, clerical and some administrative positions. The positions encompass about three dozen staff members hired in the past 18 months. The hires targeted in the audit represent a fraction of the more than 500 positions filled by the district during that time period.

The audit was conducted in the midst of continuing pushback against district administrators for their rollout of a new restorative-based discipline model this school year. The changes have led to criticism of school officials from school staff and members of the community.

The problems cited in the audit report include multiple occasions when candidates with higher scores during the hiring process were not offered the position with no explanation as to why; a general lack of documentation; and candidates for the same position being interviewed by different teams of district staff members. The report states that, in one case, it did not appear that an individual who was hired by the district was ever actually interviewed.

“The hiring procedures as defined by administration to the board are inconsistently followed,” the audit report states. “More importantly, as actually implemented, they would be very difficult to defend.”

The report includes both audit findings and recommended changes to the district’s hiring process.

When asked for comment on the audit, District 116 Superintendent Don Owen released a statement saying that “because the hiring practices examination has not yet been completed, it is premature for the School District to provide a statement or to grant an interview at this time.”

Illinois Public Media reached out to both Urbana School Board President John Dimit and Vice President Benita Rollins-Gay. Dimit declined to be interviewed citing health problems, and Rollins-Gay did not return multiple requests for comment.

In several anonymous letters sent to school board members over the last year, people expressed concerns about the district’s hiring practices, according to documents obtained by Illinois Public Media

“Many people in the district feel that positions are being cut to hire people of color in order for the district to be more diverse,” one anonymous letter stated.

In an August board meeting, district staff presented board members with a mission statement highlighting an effort to recruit and retain faculty and staff “who reflect the demographics of our student population in race, ethnicity, and spoken languages.” The document also refers to research that indicates students of color perform better and are absent less when they have teachers and staff who represent their race or ethnicity.  About 37 percent of Urbana students are black, 33 percent are white and 14 percent are Hispanic, while roughly 80 percent of teachers are white, according to the Illinois School Report Card.

The audit report notes that district officials approached the law firm that conducted the audit with a question about the legality of their hiring procedures. “We advised that offering preference to minorities in interviews was ‘aggressive but defensible,’ so long as the most qualified applicant received the position,” the report states.

But the authors of the audit report state the district didn’t follow its hiring procedures in several of the cases reviewed. The auditors wrote that “because of these inconsistencies … the practice of providing a preference based on any protected status at screening be discontinued.” “Protected status” generally refers to race, sex, national origin and religion. 

Repeated throughout the audit report is a warning that the district’s hiring process as practiced leaves them open to legal challenges that they would be hard pressed to defend.

The report advises the district to maintain all documents related to the hiring process, especially because these would be the key evidence used to support the district in the event someone were to claim that school officials didn’t offer a job to the most qualified candidate. They also wrote that interview teams must be comprised of qualified staff members and be consistent for every candidate.

“Finally, the Board of Education may want to consider creating a personnel committee comprised of two or three board members to provide oversight to administrators in the hiring process … to verify that the hiring procedures are being consistently followed and the most qualified candidates are being employed,” the report states.

The next public school board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jean F. Burkholder Administrative Service Center, 205 N. Race St. in Urbana.