Columbia Public Schools took a step toward eliminating a last vestige of Jim Crow on Wednesday.
The local school district hasn’t had a nepotism policy since the 1950s. The ban on family members working in the same school was lifted then to allow the hiring of a couple who became such influential educators that two schools are named after them.
Eliot Battle and his wife, Muriel Battle, were black. At the time CPS was recruiting them, there was only one public school in town where African Americans could teach: Douglass School. Eliot Battle initially turned down the job because he didn’t want to keep his wife from having one.
So the school board in charge of Columbia’s then-segregated public schools got rid of its nepotism policy. Both Battles got jobs. They went on to work in the district for decades, becoming prominent in CPS and the community, and helping lead the desegregation of CPS schools. Eliot Battle Elementary and Muriel Battle High School are named after them.
“When you think about the Battles and what was the greater goal — serving students — having both those people employed by the school was serving students,” said Steve Calloway, a community member of the Columbia School Board Policy Committee.
But, he added, “we’re in a different day and time now.” Schools are no longer segregated and many major employers in the community have nepotism policies. In light of that, CPS plans to consider adopting a nepotism policy in the coming months.
The decision to begin considering a nepotism policy was made public Wednesday at a Policy Committee meeting, but it was communicated to district employees in an earlier letter from Superintendent Peter Stiepleman.
Reinstating the nepotism policy was prompted by questions from recently elected Board of Education members, who suggested CPS should bring its policies in line with other private and public sector organizations, Stiepleman told the Missourian. He pointed out that the school district is the third largest employer in Columbia.
In his letter, Stiepleman asked employees to “remain calm.” Reinstating the policy “would not be a rushed decision and it wouldn’t be decided without asking you, our internal stakeholders, to provide feedback,” he wrote.
According to a timeline in the letter, district administration plans to conduct a survey in November/December, consult with HR executives in January, create a policy work group in February/March and make a decision in April/May.
“The devil’s in the details,” Calloway said. A nepotism policy wouldn’t necessarily have to be a blanket prohibition of relatives working for the district but could be more narrowly tailored to prohibit employees from supervising family members, he said.
Stiepleman said in his letter that board members he has talked to support including a grandfathering clause in any potential policy.
The school board itself already has a nepotism policy that requires members to recuse themselves from matters involving relatives.
An important step in the process of crafting a policy for the whole district will be learning what other employers do, Calloway said. “We can be guided by that, informed by that, and come up with something that makes sense.”