Tightening teacher dismissals

It has taken a mess of lewd acts, criminal charges, and threatened lawsuits in Los Angeles Unified to spur calls for reforming the cumbersome process for dismissing teachers for immoral and unprofessional conduct.

Last week, LAUSD board members unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by board member Tamar Galatzan, who’s also a criminal prosecutor, calling for the Legislature to speed up state dismissal procedures (see item 16 of the board’s agenda). Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in turn, have been elbowing one another to be first in line with legislation that has yet to be filed.

Changes in statutes could fix some but not all parts of what has been a systemic failure to act on and follow up on credible evidence over many years.

Three former teachers at one LAUSD elementary school face criminal charges for sexually abusing students. One was fired last month after being charged with committing lewd acts on a 9-year-old in 2009. Another teacher, now a fugitive, was investigated for three cases of sexual misconduct against students before resigning from the district several years ago and being hired by Inglewood Unified, where he is now accused of molesting another young girl.

The most egregious case involved Miramonte Elementary third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who pleaded not guilty to lewd acts on children (for more explicit details, go here). The district investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in Berndt’s file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles, negotiated in the ’90s, requires that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be removed from a teacher’s file after four years.

Berndt was dismissed after the latest accusations surfaced in January 2011. In June 2011, the district agreed to pay him about $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing. This type of settlement is common, not just in LAUSD, but in many districts, because appeals of dismissals to a three-person Commission on Professional Competence can take more than a year, during which time teachers continue to be paid, and the district can be liable for attorney’s fees if it loses the case.

For all three teachers, the district failed to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which would have had the authority to pull the licenses of the teachers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime.

The resolution passed by the school board calls for changes in state law in cases involving unprofessional, criminal, or immoral conduct that would:

  • Discontinue paying a teacher during the appeals process;
  • End the prohibition on introducing personnel information involving charges of misconduct that is more than four years old. (This would preclude districts from negotiating away the right to keep the information confidential, as occurred in Los Angeles Unified, and would allow the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to consider older information as well.);
  • Permit dismissal notices to be filed throughout the year (including summer) and shorten the 45- or 90-day grace period before the board could initiate dismissal proceedings;
  • Withhold pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor;
  • Make decisions of the appeals board, the Commission on Professional Competence, advisory only, giving a school board final say over dismissals.

The resolution asks Superintendent John Deasy to make recommendations to the board next month on how to proceed. If LAUSD didn’t already have enough to worry about, last month the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously  that school districts can be liable for administrators who fail to act to protect children after learning that an employee may be prone to molesting children.

Trustees have cause for frustration. Three years ago, they approved a similar resolution calling for legislative action. While the Legislature failed to enact what the board requested, the issue wasn’t ignored. In 2010, Republican Sen. Bob Huff sponsored SB 955, a sweeping bill calling for changes in teacher evaluations and giving districts more authority to ignore seniority when making layoffs. It also would have given school boards the final say over all teacher dismissal cases, not just those involving personal misconduct and criminal acts. It  would have eliminated the positions of two teachers on the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, leaving appeals solely in the hands of an administrative law judge, whose decisions would have been strictly advisory.

Huff’s bill actually passed the Senate Education Committee, 5-4, but the Democratic Senate leaders referred the bill to the Rules Committee, and it was never brought to the full Senate for a vote – an action that rankled Huff.

Two Democratic senators from Los Angeles have said they would introduce bills on dismissals. Kevin de Leon plans to work on banning pension benefits for teachers convicted of abusing children. The bill would apply only to future cases; Berndt and other teachers now facing charges would continue to be entitled to pensions. Alex Padilla says he will introduce a bill on other dismissal issues sought by LAUSD board members. Meanwhile, Republican Assembly and Senate leaders put out a press release stating that “Republicans are standing with Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified to enact reforms to empower local districts and ensure that a Miramonte-like tragedy never happens again.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Republicans will tailor their bill to apply only to misconduct cases, based on the LAUSD board’s resolution, or whether it will apply to all dismissals, including those based on unsatisfactory performance, which comprises the vast majority of cases and was the intent of Huff in SB 955.

In returning to the trustees with recommendations next month, Deasy too must decide whether he favors a narrow or broad bill.

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association didn’t respond to my requests for comment on likely legislation. UTLA President Warren Fletcher has said the union would be open to renegotiating the prohibition on using old information on unproven misconduct complaints.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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