Students arrive at Miramonte Elementary on Thursday, when the school reopened… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
The Los Angeles Unified School District paid Mark Berndt, the teacher at the center of the Miramonte Elementary child abuse scandal, $40,000 to drop the challenge to his dismissal last year.
The payout consisted of four months of back salary plus reimbursement for the cost of health benefits. Berndt was fired by the Board of Education in February 2011 after officials learned that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was investigating him for alleged lewd acts against students. He was arrested last week.
The firing took Berndt off the district payroll. But he fought to keep his job through an appeal process that lasted until he settled with the school system and resigned in June.
The settlement with Berndt came in the face of a dilemma, said L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist. A hearing on the dismissal was pending and the district didn't have evidence to justify the firing because the Sheriff's Department investigation was ongoing.
"We were told we could not do any investigation" to avoid interfering with a law enforcement probe, said Holmquist. "We didn't have any evidence, and we couldn't put on any witnesses. We didn't have anything to successfully defend a challenge."
Berndt was charged last week with 23 counts of lewd conduct against children; another teacher, Martin Springer, was charged this week with three counts of lewd conduct. Berndt is alleged to have taken photographs of blindfolded children being spoon-fed his semen. Springer is accused of fondling a girl in his class. The Berndt and Springer cases are believed to be unrelated.
At the school Thursday, tensions flared openly for the first time between the teachers union and L.A. Unified over the handling of the crisis. United Teachers Los Angeles criticized the district's wholesale removal of the Miramonte faculty. The campus, in unincorporated Florence-Firestone south of downtown L.A., had been closed Tuesday and Wednesday to allow for the transition.
"When teachers were told that they were being transferred, dozens of teachers were in tears," union President Warren Fletcher said. "They are part of the fabric of this community."
The union accepted the transfers, Fletcher said, on the understanding that the move was temporary and that no innocent teacher's employment record would be marred. L.A. Unified, he said, broke both promises, by categorizing the teachers' relocation as an administrative transfer. Such paperwork frequently results from a disciplinary action.
The 85 affected instructors began filing grievances at union headquarters, Fletcher said.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy contested the union's assertions.
"When the investigations are complete and nothing emerges with a particular teacher, that teacher's assignment is to be Miramonte Elementary School," Deasy said in statement.
Multiple inquiries are ongoing.
Meanwhile, sources close to the investigation say the Sheriff's Department is conducting inquiries into a child-abuse allegation against a male teacher who once worked at Miramonte. The incident occurred in the 1980s and was the subject of a law enforcement investigation at the time, according to records that have surfaced at L.A. Unified.
The allegation is too old to result in charges, sources said, but officials still want to learn as much as possible about what happened. In the interim, the teacher, who is working at another school, has been removed from his classroom.
The union and Deasy have issued statements saying that their paramount interest is providing a stable and secure environment for Miramonte students.
That premise was sorely tested Thursday morning with the deluge of news media, the phalanx of armed school police officers and more than 200 parents and students protesting the staff's replacement.
With standardized testing and parent-teacher conferences coming up, the timing could not have been worse, said Betty Fuentes, 18, whose brother is a fifth-grader.
First-grade teacher Martha Cedeno learned from her predecessor in the last couple of days about which children needed extra support and who seemed to be gifted — and also about two boys who usually needed to be separated.
Cedeno led her new students through writing a farewell letter or drawing a picture for their former teacher.
Only one student alluded to the teacher arrests. "You had to go because of somebody evil," said counselor Gina Adelman paraphrasing what the student wrote. The district assigned 45 counselors, one per classroom, to the school, where they are expected to remain until year's end.
At one point, Cedeno needed the students' help. They directed her to the physical education schedule. "Volleyball 71," she read. Then she paused: "What does 71 mean? Boys and girls, do you know? Is that the area you play?"
Some parents, including some who had observed classes, were reassured about their children's education after a meeting with new Principal Dolores Palacio.
A retired administrator who has trained principals, Palacio had left a message offering help to then-Principal Martin Sandoval. She received a return call asking her to run Miramonte.
"I really want to help the school get back into a semblance of normalcy," she said. "We know what we are here for. We know it's about the children and the parents."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Sam Allen contributed to this report.