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Los Angeles teacher should be fired immediately, judge again rules

Matthew Kim was removed from the classroom in 2002 for alleged misconduct but continued to receive full pay for years as his case wound through an appeals process.

January 13, 2010|By Jason Song
  • Matthew Kim, born with cerebral palsy, has limited control over his limbs. He has denied wrongdoing in the misconduct case, and his lawyer says the school district has unfairly targeted Kim.
Matthew Kim, born with cerebral palsy, has limited control over his limbs.… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

A city schoolteacher removed from the classroom more than seven years ago for alleged misconduct -- and who continued to receive a full paycheck the entire time -- should be fired immediately, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered Tuesday.

The ruling was the latest turn in the Los Angeles Unified School District's long battle to terminate Matthew Kim, a former special education teacher at Grant High School in Van Nuys. Kim had been accused of touching co-workers' breasts and making improper advances and comments toward students.

He was removed from the classroom in 2002 and required to report to a district office every workday as his case wound through the disciplinary system. Though he continued to receive up to $68,000 in annual pay plus benefits, he was given no duties.

He has been sidelined with pay longer than any other teacher disciplined by the district. L.A. Unified has spent more than $2 million on his salary and legal costs.

Kim was featured in a Times series last spring as an example of the district's struggle to fire unfit teachers, even those accused of egregious or immoral acts. The newspaper found that about 160 employees had been "housed" in district offices -- most of them fully paid -- while investigations proceeded, sometimes for years.

In response to a complaint Tuesday from Kim's lawyer suggesting that the district had unfairly targeted his client, Judge David P. Yaffe said the issue had become "an embarrassment" after the Times series "exposed it."

The school board fired Kim in 2003, but he appealed to the state Commission on Professional Competence, which has the final say over teachers' contested dismissals. The panel ultimately ruled that the touching was accidental and that Kim should not be fired.

Born with cerebral palsy, Kim has limited control over his limbs, which he says causes involuntary movement. He uses a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking.

Kim has denied wrongdoing and declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing.

This was not the first time Yaffe has demanded that the commission allow the district to fire Kim. A similar order in July was not followed after he filed an appeal.

Tuesday's hearing was held to decide whether Kim could be fired in the meantime. Yaffe said he should be fired even though his appeal is pending.

"The refusal of the Commission to obey . . . this court exposes employees of the school district to further acts of sexual harassment by Kim, unless the school district wastes public resources by paying Kim to do nothing while Kim's appeal is pending," Yaffe wrote.

Lawrence Trygstad, Kim's attorney, said Kim hadn't been accused of any inappropriate behavior since leaving Grant. After being confined to a district office for years, Kim was ordered to stay home last spring because officials said the space was becoming too crowded.

Because of the district's long-standing interpretation of the teachers contract, employees who are sidelined in this way are not given any duties.

Trygstad said he might appeal Tuesday's ruling. He also said that Kim has been willing to work. His client's salary, Trygstad said, is a small fraction of the district's total budget.

"This is like a gnat on the back of an elephant," Trygstad said in court.

Later, he said, "I feel Matt has been done an injustice."

But Mary Dowell, an attorney retained by the district, argued in court that L.A. Unified has let go of thousands of teachers because of budget shortfalls and that saving Kim's salary could help the district retain an instructor later this year when further cutbacks are expected.

"There can be no more delay," she said.

When Yaffe issued his July order, L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said Kim would no longer be paid. But district officials said his salary did not stop because the commission never moved to fire Kim.

If Kim is reinstated, the district will give him back pay with interest.

School board member Tamar Galatzan said the case is proof that legislators need to change California law governing teacher dismissal.

"Kim should have been let go a long time ago. The fact this case dragged so long is added proof the state must change the rules to make it easier to get rid of teachers who have committed egregious offenses," she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week proposed that school districts, not the Commission on Professional Competence, be given final say over teacher dismissals. The move came in reaction to the Times series, according to the governor's staff.

Officials with the Department of General Services, which oversees the commission, declined to comment.

jason.song@latimes.com

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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