Teacher dismissal bill moves on

It will be easier and quicker to fire teachers in the most egregious misconduct cases, under a bill that the Senate passed Tuesday 33-4.

SB 1530, a response to a series of shocking abuse cases in Los Angeles Unified, would allow districts to suspend with pay teachers accused of sex, violence, or drug charges involving children and then speed up the process leading to a dismissal. A formal appeals process before the three-member Commission on Professional Competence would be replaced by an administrative law judge who’d issue a strictly advisory opinion to the local school board, which would have the final say.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, will lead to a significant change in the legal process for a narrow range of misconduct cases. It will also allow districts to file dismissal charges during the summer – a quirk in the law favoring teachers – and will allow evidence more than four years old to be considered in dismissal cases. (Clarification: The bill applies not just to teachers but to all certificated personnel, including administrators.)

Had the bill already been a law, Los Angeles Unified could have handled Mark Berndt, 61, differently. He’s the teacher at Miramonte Elementary who’s been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10. Rather than go through an expensive and time-consuming appeals process, the district paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing.

The district had investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in his file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles required that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be expunged from a teacher’s file after four years.

In passing Padilla’s bill, the Senate beat back amendments proposed by Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) that would have extended the provisions in Padilla’s bill to a broader range of misconduct cases. Huff pointed to  cases involving teachers who locked a student in a closet and made ethnic slurs and fun of a handicapped child, which, he told senators, would not have been covered by the Padilla bill. Huff accused Democrats who closed ranks behind Padilla’s bill of  choosing “to support union representatives at the expense of our children and the honorable teachers serving them.”

Earlier this month, the Senate Education Committee defeated Huff’s own bill, SB 1059, on teacher dismissal, which included the amendments that he introduced on Tuesday, as well as shortened the appeals process and gave school boards the final say for dismissing teachers for unsatisfactory performance – a sweeping change. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and a representative of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa testified for the bill, saying the current dismissal process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers had opposed both bills, saying they eroded due process protections against false and unproven accusations.

Padilla said that teachers will retain the right to a hearing with witnesses and the right to appeal a decision to Superior Court.

Seven years later, teacher ordered to be fired

In a notable break from the past, the president of the nation’s second largest teachers union has committed to changing laws that drag out procedures for firing teachers charged with incompetence or misconduct.

On Tuesday, the same day that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made that promise in a Washington, D.C., speech, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ordered the immediate firing of an LA Unified teacher whose case offers the most egregious example of  what needs fixing. 

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