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California

Larry Sand
Firing Offenses
California’s latest teacher-dismissal legislation missed the mark, by far.
10 October 2013

Mark Berndt, a first-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, allegedly committed “lewd acts” against perhaps dozens of children over the course of a 31-year career. Berndt’s case exposed the tortuous legal process that makes it nearly impossible for schools to get rid of predatory teachers. It also brought to light the lengths to which teachers’ unions will go to defend their members. Berndt is still awaiting trial on 23 counts. Last year, district officials agreed to pay him more than $40,000 to resign in lieu of exercising his “due process rights,” which could have dragged out his termination for months or possibly years—while he continued to collect a salary and accrue pension benefits—through a series of contractually mandated hearings and appeals. This past March, the district announced that it would pay $30 million to the parents of 61 of Berndt’s former students.

Firing abusive teachers in California shouldn’t be so difficult. And yet a bill written supposedly to ease the process of removing from the classroom those teachers who have engaged in “immoral or unprofessional conduct” would have made matters much worse by giving teachers like Berndt even greater protections against dismissal than they currently enjoy. No surprise, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers had endorsed Assembly Bill 375, which Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Thursday. The governor said that the bill would have made the dismissal process “too rigid and could create new problems.” That’s an understatement.

Oakland Democrat Joan Buchanan, who chairs the assembly’s education committee, introduced AB 375 earlier this year as a “compromise” after fierce union opposition led to the defeat of Los Angeles Democrat Alex Padilla’s Senate Bill 1530. Both bills were written in response to Berndt’s heinous crimes. The law currently lets local school boards suspend a teacher under “specified conditions, including immoral conduct.” Padilla’s bill, introduced last year, would have added language allowing a school board to suspend an employee for “serious or egregious unprofessional conduct.” Narrow in scope, the bill dealt only with credible claims that a teacher abused a child sexually or with drugs or violence. But even that was too much for the teachers’ unions. United Teachers of Los Angeles president Warren Fletcher claimed that SB 1530 “solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.”

SB 1530 fell one vote short of getting out of the assembly’s 11-member education committee when four legislators abstained. The San Francisco Chronicle remarked that “the influence of the California Teachers Association was rarely more apparent—or more sickening—than in the defeat of SB1530.” Former state senator Gloria Romero charged that the abstainers were “cowering in fear,” afraid to run afoul of the “moneyed political interests”—the unions. No wonder, Romero observed, that the CTA considers the state assembly “their house.” The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters echoed that sentiment. “If the unions can have their way on child abuse, they can have their way on anything in the current Legislature,” he wrote.

Buchanan, one of two lawmakers on the education committee to vote against Padilla’s bill, offered AB 375 with union backing. Explaining the union’s support, CTA president Dean Vogel said, “Passage of AB 375 addresses our concerns of keeping students safe, safeguarding the integrity of the profession, and protecting the rights of educators.” Despite Vogel’s assurances, AB 375 never came close to fulfilling its promise to keep children safe.

The bill required that any misconduct case be concluded “within seven months of the date of the employee’s demand for a hearing.” That sounds reasonable; it’s better to resolve a claim quickly than to let it drag out for years. But as Romero argued recently in the Orange County Register, “the time limit becomes tantamount to a ‘get out of jail free card,’ giving teachers facing firing every incentive to delay their case past seven months.” What happens if district officials can’t reach a decision within that time period? Could a teacher force the district to settle? The legislation was unclear. Similarly, the California School Board Association (CSBA) pointed out in an analysis opposing AB 375 that the bill would have let a credibly accused teacher “challenge a suspension while he or she awaits the dismissal hearing. This new procedure would add time and costs to the hearing process . . . and make it more difficult to meet the 7-month deadline for completion.” At the same time, the bill would have handcuffed districts by preventing officials from adding new charges or evidence of abuse to an existing complaint.

SB 1530 would have eliminated the Commission on Professional Competence—which, consisting of an administrative law judge and two teachers, gives union members an edge—and given final say on teacher firings to districts. That’s a key reason why unions opposed it. AB 375, by contrast, would have kept the CPC in place while also letting any party file objections to CPC members’ qualifications. Again, that sounds reasonable, but as the state school board association notes, such objections add “cost and delay to the process without a benefit. At the time of selection, neither party is familiar with the qualifications of the panel members. Filing motions will simply result in delays that will make it harder to meet the 7-month time limit for completion of the hearing.” Buchanan’s bill also limited the number of witnesses a district may bring against a teacher accused of sexual misconduct to five—a particularly egregious provision that Brown singled out in his veto. Berndt may have molested more than 60 children and faces criminal charges for at least 23 of those. How could legislators exclude so many victims’ testimony?

AB 375 did include a few decent reforms, which Brown called “worthwhile adjustments”—ending a summer-break moratorium on teacher suspensions and eliminating the statute of limitations on certain serious allegations (which is how Berndt escaped additional criminal charges). But the bill’s minor positives obviously couldn’t outweigh its overwhelming negatives. Now Brown wants lawmakers to “continue working with stakeholders to identify changes that are balanced and reduce procedural complexities.” That mission shouldn’t be limited to teachers’ unions and their cronies in the legislature. Maybe next time, parents will be given a greater role in working out a solution that doesn’t protect union members at the expense of innocent children.

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