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FAILURE GETS A PASS

L.A. Unified pays teachers not to teach

About 160 instructors and others get salaries for doing nothing while their job fitness is reviewed. They collect roughly $10 million a year, even as layoffs are considered because of a budget gap.

May 06, 2009|Jason Song

For seven years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has paid Matthew Kim a teaching salary of up to $68,000 per year, plus benefits.

His job is to do nothing.

Every school day, Kim's shift begins at 7:50 a.m., with 30 minutes for lunch, and ends when the bell at his old campus rings at 3:20 p.m. He is to take off all breaks, school vacations and holidays, per a district agreement with the teacher's union. At no time is he to be given any work by the district or show up at school.

He has never missed a paycheck.

In the jargon of the school district, Kim is being "housed" while his fitness to teach is under review. A special education teacher, he was removed from Grant High School in Van Nuys and assigned to a district office in 2002 after the school board voted to fire him for allegedly harassing teenage students and colleagues. In the meantime, the district has spent more than $2 million on him in salary and legal costs.

Last week, Kim was ordered to continue this daily routine at home. District officials said the offices for "housed" employees were becoming too crowded.

About 160 teachers and other staff sit idly in buildings scattered around the sprawling district, waiting for allegations of misconduct to be resolved.

The housed are accused, among other things, of sexual contact with students, harassment, theft or drug possession. Nearly all are being paid. All told, they collect about $10 million in salaries per year -- even as the district is contemplating widespread layoffs of teachers because of a financial shortfall.

Most cases take months to adjudicate, but some take years.

Kim, 41, has persisted the longest.

He argued unsuccessfully in a lawsuit that he was the victim of disability discrimination. Born with severe cerebral palsy, he has limited use of his limbs, must use a wheelchair and requires a full-time personal aide (who is paid about $14 an hour by the district). He declined repeatedly to be interviewed, as did his attorney, Lawrence Trygstad.

Kim's long-term stay in paid professional limbo highlights how long it can take to move through the thicket of legal protections afforded educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest.

"It's a glaring example of how hard it is to remove someone from the classroom and how the process is tilted toward teachers," said school board member Marlene Canter, who recently proposed -- unsuccessfully -- to revamp the disciplinary process.

National issue

The problem of what to do with teachers in trouble extends well beyond Los Angeles Unified. But not every district in California, or the country, handles it the same way.

In New York City public schools, which make up the country's largest district, teachers are confined to "rubber rooms." About 550 of the district's 80,000 teachers spend school hours "literally just doing crossword puzzles, waiting for the end of the day" until their cases are resolved, spokeswoman Ann Forte said. Some have been there for years.

In Chicago, the dismissal process moves faster and the 30 teachers waiting for their cases to be resolved are assigned clerical tasks. "They've got to be doing something," senior assistant general counsel James Ciesil said.

San Francisco Unified employees are either sent home or assigned to tasks such as working in warehouses, doing inventory or answering phones, said Jolie Wineroth, the district's senior executive director for human resources.

"I don't want to give anyone a free vacation," she said.

Former union leaders say teachers in the Los Angeles district used to be assigned non-teaching jobs when they were housed. "They should not just sit there like zombies," said Hank Springer, United Teachers Los Angeles president from 1975 to 1980.

But the practice has changed in the last dozen years or so. Now, district officials say, they are prohibited from assigning chores under the contract with the teachers' union. Although there is no specific reference in the contract to housed employees, an attorney for L.A. Unified pointed to Article 9, Section 4.0, which defines the "professional duties" of a teacher, such as instructional planning and evaluating the work of pupils.

With no mention of photocopying, stuffing envelopes or answering telephones in the contract, the district and union have interpreted this provision as prohibiting clerical duties.

"Why would we denigrate [teachers] by forcing them to do something they're not supposed to do?" said A. J. Duffy, who is now president of UTLA, adding that housed teachers are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Los Angeles Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines thinks the policy should be changed. "I don't believe they should just be sitting -- that's taxpayer money," he said.

Some employees newly housed by L.A. Unified are dissatisfied with the practice for a different reason: They haven't been told what they are alleged to have done, nor whether the district is planning to fire them.

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