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AN UNNECESSARY STUMBLE

The last thing Buffalo's problem-plagued public school system needs is trouble with ethics, especially when it involves a teacher related to someone who serves on the School Board charged with figuring a way out of the district's financial, leadership and performance woes.

But that's just what the school system got when it rehired Isaac Johnson. Johnson, the son of Ferry District Member Florence Johnson, resigned in June after the system began probing the use of planned social studies exam questions in a pre-exam review with his eighth-grade pupils.

This isn't about Johnson's teaching skills. It's not even about what may have been no more than poor judgment. It's about appearances, and school standards. If Johnson's resignation last June sent a message to other district teachers, his rehiring cancels it out.

There are things to be said in Johnson's defense. For one, the school system never held a complete investigation and the accusations against him never were proven. The probe ended with his resignation, a review of exam preparation procedures and instructions to department directors to re-emphasize the importance of following those procedures.

The full board accepted Johnson's resignation "for personal reasons" a week after the incident, and the district never even took disciplinary action against another teacher who designed the test and gave him the questions. Johnson was a young probationary teacher feeling the pressure to produce good student test scores, and he says he thought the questions were "sketch versions" that might or might not appear on the final exam. And, finally, he went through last summer's teacher-application process and was qualified as a candidate for hiring.

In that light, it's tempting to agree with State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt's opinion that although it's unacceptable for adults to cheat or help children cheat, people deserve a second chance.

But Johnson's not the only one under the microscope here. He has to share that space with the school system itself.

At the very least, the staff recommendation to rehire Johnson -- who has been working lately as a substitute teacher, anyway -- should have been "flagged" so that board members could weigh some serious implications. Instead, Johnson's name was simply part of a hiring recommendation list tacked on as a late two-page addition to a routine personnel-matters agenda item.

His mother says even she wasn't aware of it until she scanned through the list, and Board President Paul Buchanan -- who wisely wants to review district disciplinary procedures and ensure they're being followed -- didn't know of the relationship until a reporter mentioned it to him a full day later.

That was a mistake, and one that carries at least the appearance of impropriety. The Buffalo school system can't afford that, and it shouldn't happen again.

Johnson's hiring was approved. He will work as an attendance teacher, in contact with chronically truant students instead of regular classrooms. He will be a probationary teacher for the next three years.

We wish him well, so long as he shows better judgment. We wish school-system officials well, too -- but they're going to have to work harder at it than this.

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