Former superintendent of Fox oversees Oakville Elementary School MAP tests

District PR director questions Pearson’s hiring of Critchlow

Dianne Critchlow

Dianne Critchlow

By Gloria Lloyd

Former Fox School District Superintendent Dianne Critchlow recently served as a quality-assurance inspector to oversee state testing at Oakville Elementary School, but Mehlville School District officials said they had no choice in her visit or her hiring.

“Yes, she was here in Mehlville. No, she wasn’t working for Mehlville,” board member Jamey Murphy told the Call. “And no, we had no say or control over her visit to Oakville Elementary.”

Although Mehlville Director of Communications and Public Relations John Wolff said the idea that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, would send a former superintendent currently being investigated by the state auditor, Nicole Galloway, for allegedly mishandling school funds into another school as a quality-assurance inspector to oversee state-administered testing is “bizarre,” that appears to be what happened.

After a decade as superintendent at Fox, where she became one of the highest-paid superintendents in the state, Critchlow retired last year but is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Fox residents who allege they were cyber-bullied by an account originating from a computer at Critchlow’s house.

The Fox Board of Education also requested a state audit of Critchlow-era records after Fox Chief Financial Officer John Brazeal told board members he discovered “substantial, credible” evidence indicating fraud, waste and abuse, including “misuse of district property, transactions that are possibly illegal, destruction of physical and electronic records, and irregularities related to the issuance of the most recent general obligation bonds and disposition of the bond funds.”

The one thing Mehlville officials said they know for sure about Critchlow’s April 29 visit to Oakville Elementary is that she signed in that she was representing DESE, but left several hours later without signing out after she observed students in classrooms taking tests.

DESE initially responded to Mehlville officials and an inquiring Fox resident that they had no knowledge of Critchlow’s employment. But state officials later said that she was hired by DESE contractor Pearson, which the state agency contracted with last year to oversee Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, testing throughout Missouri.

Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe confirmed that Critchlow worked for the company as a short-term independent contractor. But since the company does not discuss personnel issues, she could not say anything else about Critchlow’s stint at the company, including what schools she went to or whether Critchlow would be employed by Pearson in the future.

DESE officials — including Area Supervisor Tim Ricker, a former Mehlville superintendent — did not respond to requests for comment. The agency said it could take up to 10 days to respond to the Call’s Sunshine Law request for documents related to Critchlow’s visit, but DESE gave the contract to a Fox resident who provided it to the Call.

Under the 2014 contract that was renewed this year, Pearson said its Iowa City, Iowa-based program manager, Bria Workman, would hire former educators as quality-assurance inspectors and conduct background checks if the educator had not worked in a school more than a year. In Pearson’s bid, Walter Sherwood, president of state assessment services, who is based in Austin, Texas, wrote that Pearson is a “worldwide leader in learning” qualified to monitor testing in Missouri because it has developed best practices for overseeing state testing from its experience conducting similar inspections in 25 other states and Puerto Rico.

Testing observers are paid $483.41 per day along with travel-related expenses, according to the terms of the contract, and they submit a final report to the state after completing the site visit. Travel expenses are one of the areas Brazeal alleged Critchlow overcharged Fox, including a trip to Orlando’s Hard Rock Hotel with other administrators for a conference.

Wolff said DESE “disavowed” Critchlow’s employment when Mehlville officials contacted the state agency. But if the contract was followed, DESE would have known Critchlow was going to Oakville Elementary since Pearson agreed to send DESE a list of the names of its quality-assurance inspectors and their qualifications at least a week before monitoring, along with a list of specific monitoring assignments for each building.

Mehlville officials said they would not have hired Critchlow if it was up to them, and they are still trying to figure out why Pearson did.

“Why would they send her to our school? There’s no one else but Critchlow? It’s like a joke,” Wolff said. “You hire her as a quality inspector, but she’s accused of misusing money, she’s accused of mislaying things, of slander, of libel. Seriously, that’s the lady you want to be in charge of quality? I’m speechless, I still am — it makes no sense.”

In December, Mehlville Superintendent Norm Ridder was one of five finalists for state education commissioner, the top job at DESE, but the Missouri Board of Education selected then-Assistant Commissioner Margie Vandeven for the position instead. Ridder was unaware Critchlow was coming to the district, Murphy said.

DESE’s contract with Pearson also states that the company will not hire any inspectors “who are associated in any way with the school district being observed,” but the contract language does not define what an association is.

Longtime Oakville Middle School Principal Mike Salsman is Critchlow’s brother.

Howe said that since it is a personnel issue, she could not comment on whether hiring Critchlow to oversee testing at Mehlville would violate the DESE contract or whether, in general, a sibling relationship could be considered a conflict of interest for quality-assurance inspectors.

Although Pearson would not confirm whether Oakville Elementary was the only school that Critchlow oversaw for testing, Mehlville officials said it was the only district school she visited.

Given Critchlow’s record at Fox, she should not have been allowed into any Mehlville school for any professional work, Murphy said. Murphy is familiar with Jefferson City since he began his career as the chief of staff for former Sen. Jim Lembke. He said the fact that she represented DESE in a school indicates a broader systemic issue at the state level and a lack of oversight that he is going to ask state officials to explain.

“The culture where people who do something wrong or are under investigation for their action, and are moved into a similar job elsewhere should not be accepted,” he added. “You can go through the dictionary and find any synonym for concerned, outraged, disappointed, et cetera, and associate it to my feelings about this circumstance.”