Critics of Alpine School District are easing away from charges of nepotism that they had leveled at Superintendent Vern Henshaw, whose son Kevin was hired to teach special education students at Orem Junior High this fall. Kevin Henshaw beat out 33 other applicants, about half of whom had special education teaching certificates, which he does not yet have.

Oak Norton, a longtime critic of the district, called upon his supporters to demand an inquiry. Then one of those backers, whose identity has not been revealed, asked him to back down. "Please be cautious about jumping to conclusions of nepotism here," wrote the supporter in an e-mail. "Kevin is a qualified teacher and also happens to be the polar opposite of his father politically. He is a true blue conservative and a Constitutionalist. ..."

Norton sent out an e-mail agreeing to chill, calling the issue "done." That was a poor choice. The hiring process should be preserved from any taint of favoritism.

Some district officials praise the younger Henshaw, calling him a great teacher. He taught sixth grade for Alpine district in 2007, then taught for two years in Idaho, where he was certified. He joined what is called an alternative certification program, to get the special ed credentials.

Kevin Henshaw said he had never met his interviewer before, and they never discussed who his father was. Any claims of nepotism are "invalid because my dad had nothing to do with me getting an interview or anything, and my dad is not even my supervisor."

But he is the supervisor's supervisor at some level. Vern Henshaw doesn't have to directly intervene or be his son's direct boss for questions to arise. Inside influence is usually not that blatant. Hire the boss's son, make the boss happy, make your job a bit more secure. That could earn you an A in any workplace.

Wouldn't virtually everyone involved in this hire know of Kevin Henshaw's relationship to the superintendent? Yes, and they would have had reason to give him an edge, if he needed one.

Rhonda Bromley, the district's spokeswoman, brought up an irrelevant factor: "Obviously, we have hundreds of people in our district that are related to each other," she said. "We have 8,000 employees -- brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives."

Yes, but this candidate is related to the superintendent, not to another teacher or a janitor or a bus driver. It's a special case with special potential for influence to show -- even unintended influence.

Kevin Henshaw is, by all accounts, a fine teacher. And we think hiring and pay ought to be based solely upon quality results, not on paper certificates and years of experience.

But that's been a difficult concept for the education bureaucracy. It finds it hard, for instance, to establish criteria for merit pay for the best teachers. It usually follows a conventional trail of paper bread crumbs in candidate selection. That is how value is typically determined in today's system, not sheer ability.

And yet when the Alpine superintendent's son shows up looking for a job, it's suddenly easy to evaluate his skill and label him an excellent teacher even though some of the traditional paper gingerbread is missing. To be fair, anyone currently enrolled in a certificate program can be hired legally for a teaching position. In this case, however, Kevin Henshaw leapfrogged over more than a dozen candidates who already had their certificates.

There are two possible conclusions about how Henshaw was judged: 1) enrolling in a certificate program is thought to be equivalent to passing it; or 2) being a relative of the superintendent trumps certifications. Both options put the hiring process in a rather unflattering light.

If Kevin Henshaw really is a great teacher, then our children need him and nobody should care if he is the son of the school district's top boss. Demonstrated greatness should always get more respect than a paper trail.

Exactly how great Henshaw compared to other candidates thus becomes the key question. We would like to know how that was determined.

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