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School officials call for legislation easing firing of teachers

May 04, 2009|Jason Song

Top Los Angeles school officials, acknowledging that they have teachers in classrooms who should be fired, called Sunday for new state legislation that would make it easier to dismiss tenured instructors. The teachers union has vowed to fight such a move.

Reacting to a Times story published Sunday about the cumbersome process for removing substandard tenured teachers in California's public schools, L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said the system is a "sacred cow, and I do think it should be overhauled."

School board member Marlene Canter said she would again ask the board to push for revision of teacher discipline laws statewide. She initially brought the proposals to the school board last week, but a majority of her colleagues balked after objections from union leaders and a state senator. They agreed only to form a task force to study the issue.

"This is too urgent to put to a task force," Canter said Sunday.

The article found that firing permanent teachers can involve years of rehabilitation efforts, union grievances and administrative and court appeals. Administrators must spend months -- sometimes years -- observing and documenting the flaws of poorly performing teachers. Teachers can appeal firings to specially convened panels, which overturn the dismissals more than a third of the time.

The newspaper examined all available decisions by those panels over the last 15 years -- 159 cases statewide -- finding that teaching performance was rarely a factor in firing an instructor. The vast majority of educators were dismissed for egregious misconduct.

The newspaper received hundreds of comments in response to the article, the first in a series on California school districts' ability to remove educators who harm or poorly serve their students.

Many readers decried the difficulty of the process. Others contended that administrators were to blame for failing to evaluate instructors properly, help them improve or apply discipline fairly.

On Sunday, A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the union would oppose any reform efforts unless union officials are included in the process.

"UTLA has tried for years to work with the district and the Board of Education to come up with a sane and reasonable policy for evaluation which could fix most of the problems. And the district has consistently refused," he said through a spokeswoman. "The fault lies with the corrupt bureaucracy that refuses to do its job."

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who last week opposed any hasty action on L.A. Unified's part, said Sunday she believes the system needs reform. The state should allow the education code to expire and rewrite it, she said.

But the L.A. Unified resolutions were introduced too late in the legislative cycle to be considered this year and were politically motivated, she said.

"Quite frankly, it's a stunt to make LAUSD look good and Sacramento look bad," she said.

District officials, however, want to press ahead, according to their Sunday morning news release.

"If the dismissal process is not reformed, we will continue to face the choice of returning to schools some teachers that we don't want working for us, or keeping them out of the classroom and paying them to do nothing while great teachers face layoffs," said Dave Holmquist, the district's chief operating officer, whose duties include overseeing legal risks.

Many readers shared their experiences working with poor instructors or trying to get them fired. One retired administrator said it took her five years to persuade a bad teacher to retire.

Some teachers countered that they had been victimized by vindictive or incompetent administrators.

Paul Ifozaki, a math and social science teacher at Monterey High School in East Los Angeles and 30-year L.A. Unified veteran, said in an interview that he was falsely accused of making sexually inappropriate remarks to female students. Even though he was cleared of the allegations, Ifozaki said, he was still suspended for five days because his principal didn't like him.

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jason.song@latimes.com

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