San Diego Unified administrators tried and failed to fire an elementary school reading teacher who one district evaluator said could not follow a lesson plan.
"It was evident . . . that the teacher was likely not the most gifted or skilled," the commission said in reversing the dismissal. "However, her performance was not 'unsatisfactory' simply because she was not the most capable or the quickest study."
In many instances, an apology -- or at least an acknowledgment of error -- went a long way.
One teacher and coach from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in the Bay Area was contrite after being accused of leering at teenage swimmers, making sexually charged remarks to students and instructing girls to "bark like seals" while they did push-ups.
"There is good reason to believe the respondent's conduct will not recur," the commission wrote of the teacher, who had worked in the district for 24 years.
In several cases, the commissions were torn. Ronald Hafner, a choral teacher with a long history of favorable evaluations in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, was accused of serious misconduct during a trip he led with 24 students and five chaperons to Las Vegas. According to a commission summary, the district accused him of drinking alcohol in front of students, making offensive remarks -- such as suggesting that girls in his charge should apply to be strippers -- and touching a female student inappropriately.
Hafner disputed many of the accusations and argued in the hearing that he was the subject of a "witch hunt" by fundamentalist Christians. He could not be reached for comment.
In 2005, the panel found that Hafner's behavior was "shameful and inexcusable and demonstrates a severe lapse of judgment." But the teacher kept his job, because the district's allegations were not fully proved and did not warrant dismissal, according to the panel majority.
A middle school assistant principal on the panel wrote a sharp dissent:
"As a parent I would not allow my child in his classroom. As a colleague I cannot condone his conduct or attitude. As an administrator I could not trust him beyond my sight."
Too daunted to try
Faced with such frustrations, many principals don't even attempt to navigate the firing process. Letting a bad teacher slide or making him someone else's problem is far easier than trying to document his failings, some say.
The prospect of union grievances, and a protracted battle against labor representatives and attorneys, makes the endeavor even less appealing.
Joseph Walker, a former principal of Grant High School in Van Nuys, was sued by a special education teacher whom he tried to dismiss for alleged repeated sexual harassment. A civil jury sided with Walker -- but the review commission decided the teacher shouldn't be fired. The case, now in the courts, has dragged on seven years.
Confronting uphill battles like this, Walker said: "You're not going to fire someone who's not doing their job. And if you have someone who's done something really egregious, there's only a 50-50 chance that you can fire them."
Walker is now principal of Discovery Charter Preparatory Academy in Pacoima, where he said he had fired three teachers so far this year. None were fired during his three years as head of Grant. The difference: His school's teachers are not unionized and can be fired at will.
On regular public school campuses, some principals simply pass problem teachers from school to school.
Judith Perez, principal of Hancock Park Elementary School in Los Angeles, recalled a situation in which a fellow principal had one more teacher than he needed. Under union rules, the teacher with the least seniority was to be transferred. Instead, the principal pushed out a poorly performing veteran by threatening to make her life miserable with frequent observations of her classes, Perez said.
The teacher ended up at Perez's school. When Perez called the principal for information, he quickly apologized. "I'm so sorry," she recalled him saying.
Perez soon found out why, concluding that her new teacher was "a total incompetent. . . . She had no idea how to conduct a lesson in reading or math."
Perez committed herself to either making this teacher improve or forcing her out.
"I was a [teachers] union leader," Perez said. "I believe in teachers' rights and protections. . . . But my bottom line is I'm in this profession for children. . . . Basically, I dedicated my year to getting rid of this teacher."
She kept a detailed diary, conducted a series of formal meetings with the teacher and her union representatives -- all called for under the teachers' contract -- and finally persuaded the woman to quit.
A principal at Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood got a very different result.
To Linda Del Cueto, David Daniel's physical education class looked more like recess than an instructional period.