News Article Details

Memphis principal's criminal record spurs ASD policy review

Commercial Appeal - 4/12/2017

April 12--The state-run Achievement School District is reviewing hiring policies and procedures for its charter school operators after discovering a Memphis interim principal has a federal felony conviction.

The principal, Koai Matthews of Lester Prep in Binghamton was hired legally, and the Capstone Education Group said he was forthcoming about his past, which involved no violence, drugs or sexual misconduct.

But the ASD was not made aware of the flag on Matthews background check, and both ASD leaders and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the district should have known.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said the district will ask every charter in the next few weeks to notify the ASD if any employees had flags on their background checks, and what processes were used to determine that employee was safe to hire.

Anderson said the Capstone charter operators, who have independent hiring power, conducted a thorough review of Matthews before hiring him, and that their process should be the model for other school operators. But the ASD should still be notified, she said.

"In the absence of notification from the charter operators that they've taken those extra steps, we're left in a vacuum, and that is what concerns me," she said.

Charters haven't been required to take that step, but moving forward, Anderson said it will be part of each charter's contract with the state that any issues on an employee's background check are reported to the ASD. The district will also conduct additional training with all its charter operators to ensure they do more than the minimal legally required criminal background checks.

The state created the ASD to take over schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state academically, and most often outsources their operation to charter networks. The majority of the 33 ASD schools are in Memphis, and McQueen oversees its work as commissioner.

"The district has a responsibility to know what the hiring practices are of the operator and to also give training and certainly give support and advice to charter operators on what would be appropriate and what would not," McQueen said. "So we need to have information around who was hired and why that person was hired if something did show up on a background check."

Matthews, 37, served two years of probation on a federal counterfeiting conviction from 2005. He also plead guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol in 2006 in Missouri weeks after the conviction in the counterfeiting case.

Matthews pleaded guilty to conspiracy and counterfeiting charges after he and two other men were charged with making fake $100 bills with a Hewlett Packard All-In-One Copier/Scanner/Printer, according to court documents. Matthews was charged with passing two fake bills in an AĆ©ropostale clothing store in Missouri, and four counterfeit bills were passed at the Longhorn Steakhouse where Matthews and another defendant worked.

Matthews later earned a teaching license in Illinois in 2013 and moved to Memphis and was hired as an assistant principal of Lester Prep in 2014. He does not have an administrative or teaching license in Tennessee, but legally doesn't need one to be an administrator at a charter school.

His past came to light after an anonymous source mailed court documents from the 2005 case to The Commercial Appeal. The ASD said within a day of a reporter's questions about Matthews, the district office also received copies of the documents anonymously.

Matthews said his past, which he attributed to "being around the wrong group of people at the wrong time" and "making a huge mistake" while in college, is no secret. He was upfront when he applied for his license in Illinois and with those who hired him in Chicago and Memphis, and has even passed up chances to have his record expunged.

"It's a part of who I am, and my fabric, and it's made me who I am today," Matthews said. He said he's talked to his staff about it, and uses his story on a individual basis with students who commit mistakes of their own.

"I love to show them despite the obstacles you have in your life, you can get past them," he said.

Drew Sippel, executive director of the Capstone Education Group, said the charter group followed all the legal requirements, but also did extensive reference checks. Matthews is a candidate for the permanent principal's job, he said.

"We believe it's a great story of restorative justice," Sippel said.

Sippel said there was no need to notify the ASD of Matthews' record when he was hired, but that the group would have no problem with a requirement to do so.

Matthews said he is in the process of applying for his Tennessee administrator's license. He'll have to check a box saying he has a criminal record, which will mean he'll again have to defend his worthiness, this time to the Tennessee State Board of Education. But Matthews said he's not worried, given his now extensive experience working in schools since his conviction.

"I'm going to be upfront and I'm going to be honest 100 percent of the time, and the chips will fall where they may," he said.

Reach Jennifer Pignolet at jennifer.pignolet@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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(c)2017 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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